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Two years ago, the number of deaths from prescription drug overdoses surpassed the number of highway fatalities in Utah. New numbers now show how quickly the problem took off.
In 2007, 269 people died in Utah traffic crashes. That same year, 317 people died from overdoses of prescription pain medication.
At the Utah Poison Control Center, the number of emergency calls for prescription drug exposures tripled over the last decade -- from 486 in 1998 to 1502 in 2008.
"Definitely, our calls reflect what's going on in the community, so we certainly have seen an impact of the prescription pain medication problem," said Dr. Barbara Crouch, director of the Utah Poison Control Center.
Crouch says young children put everything in their mouths as they explore, including pills. Teens experiment to get high, and adults may commit suicide or mix drugs and have a bad reaction.
Couch says methadone, oxycodone, Loritab and Suboxone are being prescribed more and are more readily available in the home.
Another problem is that many think it is OK to share prescription medication. Not only is that dangerous, it's against the law.
"A lot of people don't realize that it is a felony to share your prescription medications. These are controlled substances," explained Jonathan Anderson, with the Utah Department of Health.
The state started a campaign to target overdose by prescription drugs 9 months ago. The program, called Use Only as Directed, could reduce problems or increase the number of reported overdoses.
In 2008, the number of calls to the poison control center related to prescription pain medication leveled off, but it's still too early to tell whether the problem has leveled off as well.
"We plan on doing an evaluation later this year to get a better idea of what impact was made on the public," Anderson said.
The state health department wants to learn more about what leads to overdose, but these are key factors:
- Sharing or borrowing medications
- Mixing drugs
- Self-medicating or taking the wrong amount.
The Department of Health will release new overdose fatality numbers for 2008 in April.