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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Drug overdose fatalities increase for the 11th consecutive year

Pharmaceuticals were involved in about 58 percent of the nation's drug overdose deaths in 2010, according to the latest federal data.
Pharmaceuticals were involved in about 58 percent of the nation's drug overdose deaths in 2010, according to the latest federal data. Dawn McIlvain Stahl/Flickr Creative Commons

More than 38,300 people in the U.S. died by drug overdose in 2010, marking the 11th consecutive year that number increased.

So say the writers of a research letter appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, citing data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

They highlighted the role of pharmaceuticals in the increase, particularly opioid analgesics – painkillers – which on their own accounted for 16,651 fatal drug overdoses, or more than three in four.

Among the study's findings:

  • About 58 percent of fatal overdoses involved pharmaceuticals.
  • Almost three in four were unintentional.
  • Benzodiazepines were involved in about 30 percent of deaths; antidepressants were involved in about 18 percent; antiepileptic and antiparkinsonian drugs were involved with about 8 percent.

The brand names of those types of drugs may be more familiar:

  • Opioid analgesics: Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet
  • Benzodiazepines: Xanax, Ativan, Rohypnol
  • Antidepressants: Zoloft, Abilify, Prozac
  • Antiepileptic: Valium, Lyrica
  • Antiparkinsonian: Benadryl

L.A. County's prescription drug abuse problem is such that local health officials released a set of recommendations in January intended to address the issue. Those recommendations included improved tracking and monitoring methods, better drug disposal and more robust training and education for health care professionals.

But the latest mortality statistics show that in South Los Angeles, death by drug overdose isn't too common. It's not among the area's top five overall causes of death, and even when those are broken down into the top causes of death and top causes of premature death, fatal overdoses don't make the top five in either category.

That same report, however, did show a pattern of increase in the number of fatal drug overdoses South L.A. saw between 2000 and 2009. At the turn of the century, the area had 45 drug overdose deaths, for a rate of six for every 100,000 people.

Nine years later, South L.A. had 69 fatal drug overdoses, bumping the rate to eight for every 100,000 people.

The letter's authors note that in reality, the number of people nationwide who die of drug overdoses is bigger:

Death certificate data have limitations, but they are the sole source for detailed [drug overdose] death information at the national level. This analysis is limited by the 25% of death certificates in which the type of drugs involved was not specific, an omission due to lack of toxicological testing or failure to record the results of such tests on the death certificate. Therefore, the numbers reported in this analysis are undercounts.

Since the drugs used to treat people with mental health conditions are frequently the ones involved in abuse and fatalities, they added, it's particularly important that providers keep close tabs on the way those conditions are managed and treated.

Photo by Dawn McIlvain Stahl via Flickr Creative Commons.

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