UNC-CHAPEL HILL/DUKE (US) — The number of teens and adults dying from accidental overdoses in 2007 surpassed motor vehicle crashes and suicides, two of the leading causes of injury death.
Driving the epidemic are prescription opioid medications, involved in about 36 percent of all poisoning suicides in the U.S. in 2007, and in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Opioids are synthetic versions of opium that are used to treat moderate and severe pain.
A new commentary, aimed at helping doctors control the problem, is published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Approximately 27,500 people died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2007. Put in perspective, the number is about 4.6 times as many deaths as all U.S. fatalities in both Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan from the beginning of both wars through Feb 20, 2011.
Alternatively, the 2007 U.S. unintentional drug poisoning deaths would be equivalent to losing an airplane carrying 150 passengers and crew every day for six months.
The report is co-authored by Richard Weisler, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University; Ashwin Patkar, associate professor in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Duke; and Leonard Paulozzi, medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC sounded alarms in several reports last year. In June 2010, for example, the agency announced that the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that 1 in 5 high school students in the U.S. have abused prescription drugs, including the opioid painkillers OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.
And in June last year the CDC reported that visits to hospital emergency departments involving nonmedical use of prescription narcotic pain relievers has more than doubled, rising 111 percent, between 2004 and 2008.
Various reports cite key factors linked to the problem, including increased nonmedical use of opioids without a prescription “… solely for the feeling it causes” and that psychiatrists and primary care physicians may fail to anticipate among their patients the extent of overlap between chronic pain, mental illness, and substance abuse.
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