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Deaths due to heroin overdose double in 2 years: CDC, AAN warn prescription painkillers may spark addiction

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The risks of overdose, dependence and addiction to opioid painkillers outweigh the potential benefits, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) said in a position paper on Sept. 30.

The AAN is taking a tough stance against the prescription of opioids for the treatment of chronic noncancer pain. The group argues that health service providers should look for options other than narcotic painkillers to help their patients, given that these drugs do not sufficiently improve the condition of patients.

The position paper also cited the prevalence of drug abuse. Newly released federal data appear to support the group's contention on the dangers of using prescription opioids.

In the Oct. 3 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that the number of deaths due to heroin overdose has increased as the rate has more than doubled between 2010 and 2012. The CDC said that the prevalence of overdose deaths rose from one in every 100,000 to 2.1 in every 100,000 during the two-year period.

The report was based on data gathered from 28 states, which revealed that the incidence of overdose is up from 1,779 in 2010 to 3,635 in 2012. It also exposed that drug abuse has become a rapidly growing problem in some states, such as Kentucky, where heroin deaths have increased by almost three times from 2010 and 2012.

"Combined mortality data from 28 states, encompassing 56 percent of the U.S. population, indicate an increasing problem with fatal overdoses from heroin from 2010 to 2012," the MMWR report said. "Death rates from opioid pain reliever (OPR) declined overall but remained more than twice as high as heroin overdose death rates. Changes in heroin death rates were positively correlated with changes in OPR death rates."

The rise came after years of the increased incidence of death from opioid painkillers. It also indicates that addicts may have gone from abusing pills to using illicit drugs. Earlier studies have found an association between the use of prescription drugs and illicit drug abuse. Of those who started abusing opioid after 2000, for instance, 75 percent claimed that their first taste of opioid was as a prescription drug.

Addicts may have also migrated to heroin from abusing prescription drugs because the former is cheaper and more potent than painkillers. OxyContin used to be the most widely abused pain pills but it was reformulated four years ago to combat abuse.

The CDC suggested adopting measures such as drug screening and making the drug naloxone widely available to combat the growing number of drug overdose deaths.

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