|Tuesday, December 18, 2001
|Deaths linked to both abuse, accidental overdoses
Virginia's death rate linked to oxycodone increases 'astronomically' within year
|The popular painkiller OxyContin was said to be a factor in about 90 percent of the oxycodone overdoses investigated by one medical examiner.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
Eight months ago, when a state task force began to study prescription drug abuse, 38 deaths in Western Virginia were linked to oxycodone, the opium-based narcotic that makes OxyContin both an effective painkiller and a devastating street drug.
Today , as the panel completes its work in Richmond, the number of fatal overdoses is up to 67.
"It has just shot up astronomically," said Dr. William Massello, assistant chief medical examiner. This year's count of 30 deaths could easily go higher, as it usually takes about six weeks to complete toxicology tests required for autopsy reports.
Massello said he suspected OxyContin was either the primary cause or a contributing factor in about 90 percent of the oxycodone overdoses examined by his office.
Although there have been some deaths in the Roanoke and New River valleys, the majority of fatal overdoses have been in the coalfield region of far Southwest Virginia.
Widespread abuse of OxyContin in that part of the state prompted former Attorney General Mark Earley to assemble the task force in April.
A report due out today will call for legislation creating a statewide prescription monitoring system. The computerized database could be used by police to investigate people suspected of faking ailments to obtain the painkiller from multiple doctors.
The panel is also expected to ask the General Assembly to enhance the possible punishment for someone convicted of misusing OxyContin. Better treatment options , including the use of drug courts, could also be on the list of recommendations.
Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based company that makes OxyContin, supports the prescription monitoring system as one way to keep law-breakers from abusing its product.
When OxyContin abuse was first reported, both the company and law enforcement officials said that most of the problem was caused by people who crushed the pills and snorted or injected the powder, bypassing the drug's time-release function to achieve an intense high similar to that of heroin.
However, the latest autopsy figures show that snorting or injecting the drug accounted for only about a third of the deaths, Massello said. The rest of the overdoses involved people who took the pills orally, often mixing them with other drugs and alcohol.
"A lot of people are prescribed the drug but they abuse it for recreational purposes," Massello said. "Some people don't abuse it, but are very reckless in the way they take it," either exceeding the dose ordered by a doctor or mixing OxyContin with other substances.
While some people have used OxyContin to commit suicide, most of the overdoses were accidental, Massello said.
If in fact many of the people who abuse OxyContin have valid prescriptions, that would limit the effectiveness of a monitoring system.
Some people have claimed in lawsuits that they became addicted to OxyContin as legitimate patients taking the drug the way a doctor instructed them - something that Purdue Pharma disputes.
The company has also taken issue with the number of fatal overdoses attributed to OxyContin. Blood tests performed during autopsies can only detect the presence of oxycodone, which is also found in about 40 other prescription drugs.
Purdue Pharma says that OxyContin should not be singled out for blame when it is abused along with several other drugs.
"We've never said that abusing our drugs isn't dangerous, but the numbers have been flying all over the place," company spokesman James Heins said.