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Prescription drug deaths rise in San Diego

By Janet Lavelle 6:16 p.m.July 9, 2012

Deaths and emergency room visits from prescription drug abuse have climbed every year since the county started tracking the data in 2007 and more young adults are seeking treatment for the problem in San Diego County, according to a study released Monday.

Easy availability of prescription drugs and the public’s perception that they’re not dangerous, even in high doses, accounts for much of the problem, county officials said. Officials held a news conference Monday to unveil the county’s first Prescription Drug Abuse Report Card that takes a five-year snapshot of the problem.

They also urged people to get educated on prescription drug dependency, and to get help if they or anyone they know is struggling with the problem.

“Our goal is to motivate people to take action and to reduce access to prescription drugs for those who don’t need them,” said Nick Machione, director of the County Health and Human Services Agency. “We knew prescription drug abuse was on the rise in San Diego County. We now have the statistics to prove it.”

From 2007 to 2010, prescription drug-related emergency room visits jumped 64 percent, with more than 2,900 people getting treatment at local ERs in 2010. From 2007 to 2011, deaths related to prescription drugs increased by 27 percent, with 267 deaths last year, according to the report.

More adults sought treatment for prescription drug abuse, with the percentage of young adults ages 18-25 jumping from nearly 20 percent in 2007 to almost 40 percent in 2011. And last year, nearly 20 percent of 11th graders surveyed in San Diego reported abusing prescription drugs sometime in their lives.

On Monday, county officials focused an apparently growing problem among teens and young adults.

“Many young people and adults think that anything that comes from a doctor is safe,” said county Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. “But they can be deadly if misused.”

The report card was issued by the county Prescription Drug Task Force, comprised of health and law enforcement agencies, which Slater-Price convened in 2007 after seeing a spurt of prescription drug abuse among teens along the state Route 56 corridor between Carmel Valley and Poway.

Slater-Price heard teens were holding“pharm parties” where bowls of painkillers or tranquilizers often gleaned from home medicine cabinets were offered as “trail mix.” For some teens,

prescription drugs were just the start of their troubles, she said. “Often, kids get started on prescription drugs and then can no longer afford them and go on to using heroin,” Slater-Price said.

Deaths related to prescription drugs have increased 27 percent since 2007, said Dr. Jonathan Lucas, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner. While most of those deaths were people age 40 and older, more young people also are dying, he said. In 2011, 15 of the 80 people who died of heroin overdose were under age 25, he said.

Deaths related to prescription drugs most commonly involve the painkillers OxyContin, Hydrocodone, morphine or methadone; and the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax or Valium, he said.

“The question is, for every person who dies, how many are out in the community still using prescription drugs and heroin?” Lucas said. “My guess is there’s a higher proportion of young people out there who are not dying just because they’re healthier” and able to withstand the ravages of the drugs.

That doesn’t mean young people survive unscathed, said Escondido resident Sherrie Rubin.

Rubin, who stood at the edge of the news conference, is director of the nonprofit HOPE Foundation, which provides prescription drug educational programs to schools and groups.

Rubin’s son, Aaron, nearly died from an overdose of OxyContin in 2005 at age 23. He survived a three-week coma and two strokes but is now a quadriplegic whose ability to communicate is now limited to is limited to signaling “yes” or “no” by raising one or two fingers.

Rubin said her son struggled with prescription drug addiction beginning in high school. In the early days, Rubin said, she chalked up his behavior changes and nighttime sweats to sports- related aches and pains. She said one of her messages now to parents is: allow yourself to think the unthinkable.

“If you think your child has a problem with prescription drugs, then they do and it’s much worse than you think,” she said. “Go with your instincts because you have very few years to deter or get help for your child.”

Officials said the easy availability of prescription drugs is part of the problem. Slater-Price said families often have old painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs in the medicine cabinet, left over from previous illnesses or possibly from an elderly family member who spent their final days being cared for at home.

“It was hard to find places to dispose of these prescription drugs,” she said.

As a result of the task force, residents can safely dispose of medications in drop boxes at all sheriff’s stations, and at police stations around the county. Last year, more than 18,000 pounds of prescription drugs were collected through the drop-box program and periodic collection events, officials said.

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