By Salimah Ebrahim
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Methadone use contributed to more than 30 percent of U.S. overdose deaths from prescription painkillers, even though the drug accounted for only 2 percent of the country's pain prescriptions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.
Methadone was developed in Germany in 1937, and has been used by U.S. doctors since the 1960s to treat drug addiction. Its use for chronic pain relief has been on the rise since the mid-1990s, largely due to its relatively low cost.
The CDC report showed six times as many methadone-related deaths in 2009, compared with 1999 -- making it a leading killer in what the CDC has previously described as a prescription overdose epidemic.
More frequently prescribed drugs include highly addictive ingredients such as oxycodone and codeine.
CDC officials called on physicians to be cautious in prescribing methadone for pain, noting that safer alternatives were available.
"Methadone used for heroin substitution treatment does not appear to be a major part of this problem," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a statement. "However, the amount of methadone prescribed to people in pain has increased dramatically. There are many safer alternatives to methadone for chronic non-cancer pain."
Methadone carries more risks than other painkillers because it can build up in the body, when taken more than three times a day, and lead to dangerously slow breathing, according to the CDC.
CDC said federal efforts to warn healthcare providers about the risks had not led to a decrease in methadone prescriptions for pain. In many cases the medication was being dispensed by providers without specific training in pain management, officials added.
Methadone's relatively low price is believed to be one of the contributing factors to higher prescription rates for many hospitals and insurers.
At less than a dollar per dose, Frieden conceded that an economic argument could be made for prescribing methadone over other alternatives, but he said there is a hidden cost.
"Using methadone for pain is penny wise and pound foolish," Frieden said on a conference call with reporters. "Although it may cost a couple of dollars less per pill, the result is many more emergency room visits, and a much higher societal cost in deaths, and addiction and other problems that can be avoided."
Overall overdose deaths from opioid or narcotic pain relievers amounted to 15,597 in 2009, while the total number that year for all drug overdoses was 37,004, according to the CDC.
Frieden saw room for better practices in the approach to prescribing painkillers as well as with statewide monitoring programs that allow doctors to more easily view a patient's drug history in order to avoid over-prescription and to prevent harmful drug interactions.
(Reporting by Salimah Ebrahim; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Gunna Dickson)