CHICAGO Emergency room visits tied to the abuse of prescription painkillers have jumped 111 percent over a five-year period, an alarming increase that threatens the American public health system, U.S. government researchers said on Thursday.
Emergency department visits involving the nonmedical use of pain drugs such as oxycodone rose to 305,885 in 2008, from 144,644 in 2004, according to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We urgently need to take action," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a statement, noting that trips to the emergency department for nonmedical use of prescription pain drugs are now as common as those for use of illicit drugs.
"These prescriptions medicines help many people, but we need to be sure they are used properly and safely."
SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde said the increase in emergency department visits is straining the health care system.
"This public health threat requires an all-out effort to raise awareness of the public about proper use, storage, and disposal of these powerful drugs," Hyde said in a statement.
The spike in emergency department visits associated with nonmedical use of these drugs occurred among men and women, as well as among those younger than age 21 and those 21 and older.
Abuse of other drugs, such as morphine, fentanyl and hydromorphone, resulted in fewer visits to the emergency room. But they, too, have increased sharply, according to the study published in the CDC's weekly report on death and disease.
Part of the increase reflects higher prescription rates among doctors in the United States, researchers said.
The top three most abused prescription pain drugs between 2004 and 2008 were:
* Oxycodone, in which emergency room visits for nonmedical use rose 152 percent to 105,214.
* Hydrocodone, in which emergency visits rose 123 percent to 89,051.
* Methadone, in which emergency visits rose 73 percent to 63,629.
The study was based on 2004 to 2008 data from SAMHSA's Drug Abuse Warning Network, a public health information system that monitors drug-related emergency hospital visits across the United States.
Last August King Pharmaceuticals won approval for its morphine-based drug Embeda, a pain medicine meant to help thwart abuse by those who crush or chew long-acting opioid drugs to get a dangerous high.
But in April FDA advisers urged the agency to reject an experimental painkiller from King and Acura Pharmaceuticals called Acurox pill.
U.S. government statistics show more than 13,000 fatal overdoses involving opioids occur each year.
(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Xavier Briand)