Baltimore Health Commissioner: One-third of opioid-related deaths due to fatal drug combination

Emily Rappleye (Twitter) -

While media attention and educational programs are putting the dangers of opioids center stage, Leana Wen, MD, the Commissioner of Health of Baltimore City, says there is a serious related threat that many healthcare providers are overlooking. 

In an Op-Ed published Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Wen wrote that 44 Americans die everyday from opioid overdose, but one-third of those deaths are also associated with combined benzodiazepine use. Data from Maryland shows 70 percent of opioid-related deaths were also benzodiazepine-related, according to the report. 

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax or Valium, combined with opioids can suppress breathing, increase drowsiness and lead to death, Dr. Wen wrote. Yet many physicians continue to prescribe these medications together because they are taught to do so. Dr. Wen wrote that she was taught to prescribe them together when she was in medical school in the early 2000s. including Dr. Wen. Many current overdose campaigns are also focused on opioids because there is a drug available to reduce an opioid overdose, she wrote. 

However, mounting data shows this drug combination is a serious threat to patients, according to Dr. Wen. A federal study she cited indicates hospital admissions for patients addicted to both types of drugs increased 569 percent over the last decade. 

To help combat the problem, Dr. Wen and 40 other city health commissioners and state health directors formed a coalition pushing for an FDA black box warning on prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines together. The FDA has issued a black box warning for opioids, she wrote, but it did not include information about their combination with benzodiazepines. 

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