The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed an alarming finding in a report released July 3: The prescription drug methadone was responsible for more than 30 percent of painkiller overdose deaths in 2009, despite accounting for just 2 percent of painkiller prescriptions.  This represents a great public health concern, with methadone-caused mortality rates proven to be six times higher than a decade earlier.

CDC addressed “prescription painkiller overdoses” in a town hall teleconference Thursday, with presenters elaborating on its data and suggesting prevention strategies moving forward.

Picture: More Utahns died last year from unintentional prescription pain medication overdoses than car crashes

More Utahns died last year from unintentional prescription pain medication overdoses than car crashes. Photo from www.useonlyasdirected.org.

“States can play an important role,” said Leonard J. Paulozzi of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “States can develop and promote the use of safe prescribing guidelines for methadone, use prescription drug monitoring programs to identify patients using for nonmedical purposes and support the use of methadone as a treatment for opioid dependence in opioid treatment programs.”

According to Paulozzi, methadone-related overdoses cause roughly 5,000 deaths per year. The drug has advantages, including its long duration of action, relatively low cost and availability for oral use, he said, but death rates show its substantial risks. Paulozzi called on health insurers to evaluate methadone as a preferred drug and consider strategies to minimize its use.

The teleconference included state data. In Utah between 2002 and 2011, the number of methadone prescriptions rose from approximately 5,000 to 50,000. And in North Carolina between 2000 and 2007, unintentional overdose deaths increased by 106.3 percent.

“More Utahns died last year from unintentional prescription pain medication overdoses than car crashes,” said APHA member Christy Porucznik of the University of Utah’s Public Health Program.

J. Timothy Whitmire of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services added that “a broad set of prevention strategies are needed,” because methadone deaths may be closely associated with substance abuse and mental disorders.

More information on prescription drug overdoses by state is available at CDC online.