Aims To determine death rates from methadone over time, to characterize methadone-related death and to discuss public health surveillance of methadone-related death.
Design We analyzed medical examiner data for all unintentional drug overdose deaths in New Mexico, USA, between 1998 and 2002.
Measurements Age-adjusted death rates for methadone-related death, logistic regression models for likelihood of methadone-related death among all unintentional drug overdose deaths and bivariate comparisons within methadone-related death.
Findings Of 1120 drug overdose deaths during this period, there were 143 (12.8%) methadone-related deaths; the death rate decreased over the time period, averaging 1.6 per 100 000. Of 143 methadone-related deaths, 22.4% were due to methadone alone, 23.8% were due to methadone/prescription drugs (no illicit drugs), 50.3% were due to methadone/illicit drugs and 3.5% were due to methadone/alcohol. These groups were significantly different in demographics, health history and circumstances of death. Of 79 decedents (55.2%) with a known source of methadone, 68 obtained methadone through a physician prescription (31 for methadone maintenance treatment (MMT), 27 for managing pain and 10 had unknown reason for prescription).
Conclusions Methadone-related death rates and the proportion of methadone-related death among all drug overdose deaths decreased in New Mexico from 1998 to 2002. It is important for surveillance of methadone-related death to assess multiple drug causes, not just underlying cause. Also, methadone for pain management must be examined alongside MMT and when possible, methadone co-intoxication should be described in the context of other drugs causing death.