W.Va. leads nation in fatal drug overdoses

PARKERSBURG – A local health expert hopes a new report on prescription drug abuse will help physicians and patients better curb prescription drug abuse.

“I look forward to reading the report and hope it gives some strategies on how we can help those prescribed and prescribing pain medication from abusing or misusing the drugs,” said Dick Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department.

West Virginia has the highest number of prescription drug overdose deaths, with 28.9 per 100,000 people having died of fatal overdoses in 2010, according to the report “Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic.” Prescription medications were involved in the majority of those deaths.

The study, which was performed by the Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and released last week, said West Virginia has seen a 605 percent increase in overdose deaths since 1999. Before the turn of the 21st century, the overdose death rate was 4.1 per every 100,000 people.

This growth of the misuse and abuse of these medications in West Virginia is outpacing that throughout the rest of the country, the report stated.

Fatal overdose rates doubled in 29 states during the same time period, quadrupled in four states and tripled in 10, according to the study.

“It is pretty common knowledge in the medical community that prescription drug abuse is on the rise,” Wittberg said. “All anyone has to do is look at the Wood County Drug Court cases because most of those deal with prescription pain medications.”

Wittberg said prescription pain medications are most often misused and abused by people because they include opiates, which are highly addictive.

“Most of the time people taking these drugs don’t realize they have become addicted until they run out or something bad happens,” he said.

In contrast to the increased use of prescription drugs, the report noted West Virginia is tackling the problem, with medical personnel using eight of a possible 10 indicators of promising strategies to curb prescription drug abuse.

Those 10 strategies are for both physicians and patients and are educating the public about the risk of misuse and how to avoid it, ensuring responsible prescribing practices by increasing education for health care providers and prescribers to better understand the misuse of medications and how to identify patients in need of help, increased understanding of safe storage and disposal of unused medications, making sure patients receive the medications needed as well as access to safe and effective drugs, expanded access to treatment options, improved and modernized prescription drug monitoring programs to identify patients in need of treatment to connect them with appropriate care as well as identifying doctor shoppers and problem prescribers.

“While education is necessary, I’m not sure it helps the way this study and others want or expect it to,” Wittberg said. “If education worked, we wouldn’t have smokers, obesity or other health issues because people would follow the advice given in education, which is just not happening.”

Prescription drug-related deaths outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined. Drug overdose deaths exceed motor vehicle-related deaths in 29 states and Washington, D.C.

Misuse and abuse of prescription painkillers alone costs the country an estimated $53.4 billion each year in lost productivity, medical costs and criminal justice costs. One in 10 Americans with a substance abuse disorder receives treatment.

“Prescription drugs can be a miracle for many, but misuse can have dire consequences,” said Dr. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of TFAH. “The rapid rise of abuse requires nothing short of a full-scale response starting with prevention and education all the way through to expanding and modernizing treatment.

“There are many promising signs that we can turn this around but it requires urgent action,” he said.

(The Associated Press and Trust for America’s Health contributed to this article.)