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Letter Regarding Opioid-Related Overdose Deaths

August 2006

Download a printable version of this letter and attached Resource Sheet (PDF, 116 KB, 3pg.)

Dear Colleague:

Drug overdose is a serious public health concern. We are writing to ask for your help in preventing accidental deaths due to opioid-related overdoses. Since 1990, there has been a significant increase in deaths due to accidental drug poisoning across the United States. The largest increase among such poisonings is among the opioid category of drugs, including heroin, morphine, codeine, methadone, oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percodan, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), fentanyl (Duragesic), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid). This change has accompanied a dramatic increase in prescriptions for opioids for pain management. A 2005 survey revealed that 19% of U.S. teenagers, roughly 4.5 million, reported having taken prescription painkillers to get high.

Recent news reports have highlighted the dangers of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid at least 50 times more potent than morphine or heroin. The combination of illicitly manufactured fentanyl with heroin is believed to be the cause of recent outbreaks of overdose deaths reported nationally, including, to date this year, 16 fentanyl-related deaths in New York City (NYC) and 13 outside of NYC for a statewide total of 29. We encourage your review of the variety of print and other materials about fentanyl, including fact sheets, that are freely available on the Internet as outlined in the Resource Sheet.

Overdose is a preventable cause of death in the majority of cases involving opioids. Prevention measures include education on risk, overdose recognition, and appropriate response (e.g., contacting emergency medical services, resuscitation/rescue breathing, and/or administration of naloxone, an FDA approved opioid antagonist). Opioid overdose prevention programs can also provide training for individuals to reverse potentially fatal overdoses. You may obtain information about opioid overdose prevention programs from the New York State Department of Health.

We urge you to consider including information about preventing opioid-related overdoses in your programs and services.


Guthrie S. Birkhead, M.D., M.P.H.
Directory, AIDS Institute
NYS Department of Health

Steven S. Kipnis, M.D., FACP, FASAM
Medical Director
NYS Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services