Silent epidemic: It's time to wage war on fatal drug overdoses
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Is an Allegheny County resident more likely to be killed in a car accident or die of a drug overdose? Most people would give the wrong answer to that question.
Dying of a drug overdose seems like a remote possibility because of the disconnect between the perception of a typical victim and the reality. The result is that a dangerous epidemic goes undetected and its potential victims go untreated.
The county Health Department reports that drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury deaths. In 2010, there were 79 motor vehicle fatalities. There were 224 fatal drug overdoses, however, and that's not even the highest total. There were 254 in 2007.
A closer look at the figures is more disturbing. Of the 224 fatalities, 50 were attributed to heroin but far more -- 140 -- were due to prescription opioid pain relievers, although some deaths may have involved both. A relatively small number of the victims were young people under age 24, but the growth of fatal overdoses in that group quadrupled in the past decade.
An analysis of the cases of 23 drug overdose victims aged 15 to 21 who died between 2008 and 2011 found that every death involved at least one type of opioid. Heroin is an opioid, but so are commonly prescribed painkillers, including Vicodin and OxyContin.
The region is not alone. Nationwide, 74 percent of drug overdose deaths are attributed to opioid pain relievers.
In February, the health department's director, Bruce Dixon, and former medical examiner Cyril H. Wecht warned about steadily increasing prescription drug abuse and pointed out that nationwide, as in Allegheny County, more people die from drug overdoses than car accidents.
The health department, working with the nonprofit Prevention Point Pittsburgh, assembled information and advice on how to prevent drug overdoses. Geared to adolescents and their families, it is available at www.pppgh.org or through the health department's website, www.achd.net.
Dr. Wecht said it in February, but it bears repeating now: "Until this drug abuse is recognized and labeled for what it is -- an epidemic -- and is dealt with as we would deal with any other epidemic, we will continue to see it rise as it has each year."
First Published May 7, 2012 12:00 am