Methadone Overdose Deaths Skyrocketing in Utah

Methadone Overdose Deaths Skyrocketing in Utah

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OGDEN, Utah (AP) -- Deaths caused by an overdose of methadone -- a painkiller used to help addicts stop taking heroin -- are up nearly 300 percent in Utah from 2000 to 2004, according to state health officials.

"We've been trying to sound this alarm for a number of years," said Dr. Todd C. Grey, chief state medical examiner. "It is a health problem. Methadone is claiming a large number of lives. These are middle-age people, the middle-class, working families. It is the salt of the earth or backbone of America who are getting killed, not the illicit weirdo drug users. These are preventable deaths."

Methadone was developed by the Germans during World War II when opiates were difficult to get for wounded soldiers. It can be prescribed in a liquid form to heroin addicts in drug-treatment facilities but is also prescribed as a pain-management drug.

What makes the drug so dangerous, Grey said, is that the pain-suppressing properties of the drug do not last as long as its ability to suppress breathing.

For example, if a prescription said to take a pill at noon and then again at midnight, a patient may start feeling pain around 6 p.m. and decide to pop a pill. That gives the patient a double load of medicine that is suppressing breathing.

"Then the person wakes up dead," he said.

In the late 1990s, methadone became more widely prescribed to help treat chronic pain, Grey said. In 2000, 871 grams were sold per 100,000 people. In 2004, 2,769 grams were sold per 100,000 people.

But the amount of methadone being used by Utah residents does not explain the number of deaths, Grey said.

"Something else is going on," he said. "The death rate is increasing much more than the consumption rate. We don't know what factors are driving that."

According to a study by the medical examiner's office, which has not yet been published, 70 percent of methadone deaths occurred within the first week of either getting a methadone prescription, changing the prescription or re-establishing the methadone after a patient has been off it, or getting the painkiller from someone with a legal prescription, Grey said.

Doctors also may be contributing to the problem because they "do not understand how to prescribe and monitor patients," Grey said.

Patients and doctors may also not know it takes several days of taking the medication for its full effect to be felt, so patients do not experience any relief for three to five days. That's when they pop the extra -- and possibly fatal -- dose.

The risk of overdosing is always within the first two weeks, said Dr. Michael J. Crookston, who is on the state Board of Directors of Substance Abuse and Mental Health and serves as the medical director of LDS Hospital's Dayspring drug and alcohol treatment program.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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