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New numbers: Georgia opioid prescriptions, deaths falling
Experts say publicity about the dangers of opioids, federal guidelines for dosage levels, expansion of treatment and prevention programs may all be driving decreases
pill bottle

ATLANTA — Prescriptions for opioids, as well as possible indicators of abuse, continue to fall in Georgia.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports new figures released by the state Public Health Department show prescriptions for opioids fell 13% from 2016 to 2018.

Preliminary numbers show opioid-related overdose deaths of Georgia residents dropped by 12% between 2017 and 2018, falling from 996 to 873. Opioid deaths dropped 2% nationwide.

Experts say publicity about the dangers of opioids, three-year-old federal guidelines for dosage levels and the expansion of treatment and prevention programs may all be driving the decreases.

Laura Edison, an epidemiologist at the state's Public Health Department, says reducing prescription helps cut addiction and illicit resales. She notes Georgia's requirement that physicians and dentists check a state prescription database before prescribing new drugs.

"Getting these drugs off the street and keeping people who have alternatives to opioids from using opioids to manage their pain is going to help prevent addiction and overdose," Edison said.

One statistic that could indicate addiction — the number of patients who got such prescriptions from five or more doctors, dispensed at five or more pharmacies — fell by more than half from 2016 to 2018. That number is now 12.2 people per 100,000, down from 30.8.

Dr. Justine Welsh, who directs Emory Healthcare's addiction services, praised Georgia's results. But she also wants to see a bigger reduction in the percentage of days patients have overlapping prescriptions for opioids and benzodiazepines, or sedatives. That number was 13.1 last year, down from 15.1 in 2016. Mixing those types of drugs increases the risk of respiratory depression and overdose, she said.

Health officials also reported the percentage of patients who received doses of opioids above federal guidelines dropped 2017 and 2018. Issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016, the guidelines have drawn fire from chronic pain patients who say they are being used to block them from getting the medication they legitimately need. Dozens demonstrated outside the CDC's Atlanta offices in June. Two months before that, the CDC issued a statement advising against misapplying the guidelines.

Edison, the medical epidemiologist, said public health officials are pushing "to ensure that patients who legitimately need opioids still have access to them."

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