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Heroin, synthetic opioids fuel veterans' overdose spike, study says

By Tauren Dyson
Heroin, synthetic opioids fuel veterans' overdose spike, study says
Between 2010 and 2016, veteran deaths from opioid overdoses spiked 65 percent. File Photo by qimono/Pixabay 

May 23 (UPI) -- The overprescription of opioids to reduce pain may not be driving the high overdose death for veterans, new findings show.

Between 2010 and 2016, veteran deaths from opioid overdoses spiked 65 percent, according to a study published Wednesday in American Journal of Preventive Medicine. By 2016, however, only a quarter of those who died had filled an opioid medication presciption, suggesting most overdosed from non-prescription opioids.

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"The percentage of veterans who had received an opioid pain prescription in the year before their opioid overdose death dropped substantially over this time period," Allison Lin, an addiction psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Ann Arbor and the study's first author, said in a news release. "But interventions on opioid overdose preventions have often focused on those receiving opioid presciptions; if we're only screening for risk in that population, this shows we will miss a lot."

The researchers partnered with the Serious Mental Illness Treatment Resource and Evaluation Center, a program that assesses the VA mental health programs.

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They examined veteran overdoses and found that the rate of deaths connected to opioids went from 14.47 per 100,000 in 2010 to 21.08 in 2016. Overdose deaths from fentanyl increased fivefold, while deaths from overdoses of heroin or mixing opioids quintupled.

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During the study period, death rates from opioids normally prescribed for pain held steady, while rates for methadone, which is used to treat an opioid disorder, fell significantly.

The VA Opioid Safety Initiative has attempted to balance the task of decreasing unnecessary opioid prescriptions with helping veterans manage pain.

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Now, Lin believes the program should do more to fight addictions to other types of opioids.

"This is a very good thing, and a first step toward long-term prevention of overdose deaths," Lin said. "But these data show it's important to refocus on those with a current risk of overdose from illicit opioid, including very potent synthetic drugs."

To tackle the problem, Lin and her colleagues published another paper analyzing a telemedicine approach to treating veterans addicted to opioids. She's also begun to develop a telemedicine treatment to treat veterans suffering from opioid addiction around the country.

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"We really have to think about opioid overdose prevention and substance use disorder treatment more broadly, to determine where the greatest unmet need is, increase treatment access and accessibility and improve outcomes," Lin said.

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