UW News

July 28, 2010

Prescription-type opiate overdoses, deaths continue to rise in King County

Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering

The number of people dying in King County from prescription-type opiate overdoses continues to rise, according to results released today from the 2009 King County Drug Trends report. The report is produced by a collaborative effort of researchers, public health experts, law enforcement officials and service providers led by Caleb Banta-Green, research scientist at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

In addition to the increase in overdoses cited above, Banta-Green said researchers also see signs that heroin use is increasing among young adults and across the state.

More specifically, prescription-type opiate-involved deaths continued to increase in King County in 2009, accounting for 160 out of 253 drug overdoses. This compares with 21 prescription-type opiate deaths in 1997.

• 83 percent of these deaths in 2009 involved another substance, most often prescription-type anti-anxiety medicines (e.g. Valium, Xanax).

• One in four of the deaths also involved an illegal drug; almost half of those who died were women.

• Other indicators in the report show the impact of prescription-type opiates in both King County and throughout the rest of the state. More than half of those entering treatment for addiction to prescription-type opiates are between the ages of 18 to 29, for example, with 440 young adults entering treatment in King County alone in 2009.

Researchers also found that young adult use of heroin continues to increase over the past decade. In 2009, nearly 30 percent (471) of heroin users who entered drug treatment were between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17 percent (326) in 1999.

Heroin problem indicators increased at a faster rate outside of King County from 2005 to 2009, as shown by treatment admissions to non-methadone maintenance treatment and calls to the Washington Alcohol/Drug Help Line. Help Line calls about heroin for those outside of King County show a 64 percent increase in the proportion of all calls between 2005 and 2009; the numerical increase for these calls increased from 410 to 917.

Among other drugs, cocaine continues to be a major drug of abuse and was the most common illegal drug detected in deaths in this report. Most cocaine also appears to contain levamisole, an adulterant that can lead to serious health problems.

Marijuana continues as the most common primary drug among youth entering drug treatment. In addition, the number of adult treatment admissions has more than doubled over the past decade. The increases are most notable among males, blacks, and Hispanics and in the south region of King County where the rate has doubled since 1999 and surpassed Seattle in 2007. Probation or court systems made the referral to marijuana treatment programs for nearly 30 percent of clients in 2009. This figure is similar to treatment admissions in prior years, but it is the highest proportion of treatment admissions for any drug in 2009.

Methamphetamine-involved deaths and treatment admissions have held steady, at a moderate level, over the past five years. Most methamphetamine deaths occur in white males and the median age is 45.5 years. Mortality rates are highest in Seattle and the south end of the county.

“Preventing prescription opiate overdose deaths can start in our own households,” said Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County. “If you have unused medications, keep them out of unwanted hands by disposing of them properly.” Consumers may learn about disposal options by visiting the unwanted medicine return program web site or by calling the King County hazardous waste line at (206) 296-4692. The Washington State Department of Health also has a new patient education flyer about the safe use of prescription pain medication.

In addition to proper disposal, individuals should be aware of the risks as well as the benefits of any prescription medication containing opiates and use them exactly as prescribed. Prescription opiates should not be shared with others and secured so that others, including children and teens, can’t access them.

Misuse of prescription opiates may lead to an overdose, based on the drug trends report. Serious opioid overdoses (heroin and/or pharmaceutical) within the prior year were reported by 16 percent of King County syringe exchange survey respondents in 2009. More than 40 percent of these respondents reported that they had witnessed a serious overdose in the prior year. Emergency medical help was summoned by calling 911 during 61 percent of the most recently witnessed overdoses.

The figures above draw attention to the new 911 Good Samaritan measure (SB 5516), signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire in March 2010. This law provides legal protection from drug possession charges for “good Samaritans” who seek medical help for someone having an overdose as well as the person having an overdose. The law also makes it easier for people who might witness an overdose from opiate pain medications or heroin to obtain in advance an antidote medicine that they could administer. More information about the law is available at a web site created by the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

The King County drug trends report is available online at the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.