By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Heroin overdose deaths in the United States nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, fueled by lower costs as well as increased abuse of prescription opiate painkillers, U.S. health officials said on Tuesday.
Such medicines, which include Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet, increase individuals' susceptibility to heroin addiction, Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Reuters.
"Everything we see points to more accessible, less-expensive heroin all over the country," Frieden said of the joint report by the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which analyzed national survey data on drug use from 2002 to 2013.
The "Vital Signs" report, published July 7 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, found that nearly all people (96%) who use heroin also use multiple other substances, and that the strongest risk factor for heroin abuse is prescription opiate abuse.
According to the report, individuals who abuse prescription opiates have a 40 times greater risk of abusing heroin. The increased use has fueled sharp increases in overdose deaths.
As many as 8,200 people died from heroin overdoses in 2013 alone, according to the report.
Frieden said reversing the trend will require an "all-society response" to improve opioid prescribing practices and expand access to effective treatment, increasing the use of drugs such as naloxone to reverse drug overdoses and working with law enforcement partners such as the Drug Enforcement Administration to disrupt the supply of heroin.
"There are lots of people who have not yet gotten an opiate and we need to protect them from the risk of getting addicted," Frieden said.
He said doctors are prescribing "way too much of these medications, and the result of it is large numbers of people who are addicted."