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Methadone deaths still high but may have peaked

ATLANTA — Overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have been surging at an alarming rate in the United States, but the number blamed on methadone appears to have peaked.

Still, methadone accounts for nearly one-third of prescription painkiller deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

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Methadone, known mainly for treating heroin addiction, is also prescribed for pain. Health officials say most of the overdose deaths are people who take it for pain, not heroin or drug addicts. After a sharp rise, the number and rate of methadone-related overdose deaths have fallen since 2007, the CDC report shows.

Health officials describe the recent trend as closer to a leveling-off than a reversal. But they also acknowledged it is a bit of good news in what has been a deteriorating situation.

‘‘There aren’t a lot of problems that have gotten so much worse so quickly as prescription drug overdose has,’’ said the CDC’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Overall, overdose deaths from powerful painkillers have increased by about four times over a decade, he said.

Besides methadone, painkiller deaths primarily involve Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), and Opana (oxymorphone).

Methadone is a powerful drug that can be underestimated. It accounted for just 2 percent of painkiller prescriptions in 2009, but more than 30 percent of overdose deaths, according to the CDC.

The drug mimics the effects of heroin and has been used to wean heroin users off of their addiction.

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