TIME Addiction

America’s Pain Killer Problem is Growing, Federal Data Shows

522931711
Getty Images

New data shows America's use of opioids hasn't declined

New federal data released Wednesday reveals the state of America’s pain killer use.

According to the numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the percentage of adults age 20 and over using prescription pain killers remains significantly higher than in the past, with people also taking stronger painkillers than before. Between 2011–2012, nearly 7% of adults reported using a prescription opioid analgesic in the past 30 days, compared to 5% in 2003-2006.

MORE: The Problem With Treating Pain in America

The report also shows that when comparing data from 1999–2002 with 2011–2012, the number of prescription pain killer users who took a medication stronger than morphine increased from 17.0% to 37%. Given the growth of pain killer addiction and related deaths, high usage makes many public health experts uneasy. Prior data from the CDC has also shown that nearly 50 Americans die from an overdose of prescription painkillers every day.

In 2014, the CDC found that doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for pain killers in a single year, which is enough for every U.S. adult to have a bottle of pills.

The new data shows that women are more likely than men to be using prescription pain killers. Non-Hispanic white adults were more likely to use opioid analgesics than Hispanic adults. There was no difference between non-Hispanic white adults and non-Hispanic black adults.

MORE: Why You’ve Never Heard of the Vaccine For Heroin Addiction

As TIME has recently reported, the growing opioid addiction problem is seeding a heroin problem. Since both drugs come from the opioid poppy, they offer similar highs, but heroin, while illegal, is cheaper and doesn’t require a prescription. As states across the nation face opioid issues, the CDC will continue to recommend states step up to the task of keeping an eye on prescribing practices. Some strategies recommended by the CDC are implementing state-run databases that track prescriptions in order to determine any over-prescribing problems as well as introducing policies that discourage risky prescribing among pain clinics.

TIME medicine

Why Doctors Should Start Prescribing Downward Dog

downward dog yoga
Getty Images

Complementary medicine is gaining traction with adults and kids alike

Americans are slowly but surely embracing complementary medicine—alternative practices to go with standard treatment—according to new data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

Two new surveys show that while the overall use of complementary health approaches has remained relatively stable over the years at 34%, certain types are rapidly gaining popularity, especially yoga. Other common complementary practices are taking dietary supplements, doing tai chi and qi gong, meditating and getting chiropractic care.

More and more children are also doing yoga, the survey finds, and they typically use it for ailments like back or neck pain, nerve conditions and anxiety. Interestingly, the majority of children didn’t just practice yoga for exercise, but for meditation and deep breathing. Other new research is showing that when kids practice mindfulness and meditation, they gain a range of health benefits from more self-control to higher math scores.

“The low cost and the ability to practice in one’s own home may contribute to yoga’s growing popularity,” the authors write. “Furthermore, public school systems are beginning to incorporate yoga into their fitness programs, which may accelerate use by children in the future.”

Even though many complementary practices are ancient in other countries, it’s still relatively new in the United States. Medical institutions are increasingly willing to meet patients halfway with therapies that won’t cause harm, as long as practices are safe and don’t ignore the need for conventional medicine and pharmaceuticals when necessarily. In January 2014, the Cleveland Clinic opened a Chinese herbal therapy clinic, and experts at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota say the appetite for more integrative medicine in the hospital setting is growing. “Acupuncture is a huge practice [here],” says Dr. Brent Baur, director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. “Right now our demand for acupuncture outstrips our ability to meet that demand probably three to one. We can’t even come close to keeping up.”

“I think [interest] is being propelled by economics because our health care system is in such desperate trouble,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and a pioneer of integrative medicine in the U.S. “The great promise of integrative medicine is that it can lower costs while increasing outcomes. It does that by emphasizing lifestyle medicine and by bringing into the mainstream techniques that do not involve expensive technology.”

In a World Health Organization survey of 129 countries, 80% recognize the use of acupuncture. The U.S. may be catching up; other research shows that about four in 10 U.S. adults and one in nine kids use some form of complementary and alternative medicine.

TIME Infectious Disease

Georgia Gets First Case of Measles in 3 Years

National case numbers reach over 120

Georgia’s Department of Public Health confirmed on Monday that the state has its first case of measles since 2012.

An infant who traveled to Atlanta from outside the country is now being treated for the disease at Egleston Hospital at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA).

State officials, the hospital, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Prevention (CDC) are working together to identify other people who may have been exposed to the disease.

According to the health department, over 98% of incoming kindergarteners in the state have received all their school-mandated shots, including the full two doses of the measles vaccine.

New numbers released by the CDC on Monday show there are currently 121 cases of measles from 17 states, an outbreak which reportedly began at a Disneyland resort in southern California.

“We don’t need to be alarmists. We need to be aware,” said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of Health Protection at the Georgia Department of Public Health said in a statement. “What happened in Disneyland is an alert that we live in a world now in which international travel is very common and frequent, and diseases are only hours away.”

 

TIME Infectious Disease

Millennials More Likely to Say Vaccines Are a Parent’s Choice

138307605
Getty Images

41% of people aged between 18 and 29 agreed parents should decide on vaccinations — far higher than other age groups

Most Americans agree that vaccines are a really good thing for public health, but a new poll shows that people aged between 18 and 29 are most likely to say vaccines should be a parental choice instead of a requirement.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 68% of American adults across all age groups believe vaccines should be mandatory and 30% say it should be up to parents to decide.

But young adults are the most likely to agree with the latter statement, with about 41% of people age 18 to 29 saying parents should be the ones to decide whether or not to vaccinate their child. Among adults age 65 and older, only 20% feel this way.

Pew says one reason older adults are far likelier to be in support of mandatory vaccinations is that they remember what it was like when some of these infectious diseases, like the measles, were prevalent. Measles was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000, thanks to high rates of immunizations.

Health officials say the recent outbreak of measles in the U.S.—which has infected 102 people—is spreading due to parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids.

MORE: Feds Say Measles Outbreak Tops 100 Cases

While the public may be slightly more split on the issue—though the large majority support vaccines—physicians are not so split. A separate poll released on Monday by the physician social network community SERMO showed 92% of physicians say the current measles outbreak is directly attributable to parents not vaccinating their kids, and 72% believe unvaccinated kids should not be allowed in public schools.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 102 cases in the month of January. To put that into perspective, that’s about the number of cases the U.S. experiences in a typical year. In 2014, the U.S. had its highest number of reported cases of measles at 600.

TIME Infectious Disease

Feds Say Measles Outbreak Tops 100 Cases

Carmen Lopez, Charles Goodman
Damian Dovarganes—AP Pediatrician Dr. Charles Goodman talks with Carmen Lopez, who is holding her 18-month-old son Daniel after being vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, at his practice in Northridge, Calif., on Jan. 29, 2015

The majority of people with the disease were not vaccinated

The number of measles cases in the U.S. has reached 102, according to new numbers released on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Between Jan. 1 to Jan. 30, 102 cases of the measles were reported to the CDC from 14 different states. The majority of the cases are from an ongoing outbreak linked to Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, Calif. The CDC says the majority of people who got measles were unvaccinated.

“It’s only January and we have already had a very large number of measles cases — as many cases as we have all year in typical years,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, the assistant surgeon general, U.S. Public Health Service said in a press conference last Thursday. “This worries me, and I want to do everything possible to prevent measles from getting a foothold in the United States and becoming endemic again.”

Medical officials have not yet determined how this year’s outbreak began, but the CDC says measles were likely brought over by travelers from overseas. The people infected in the current outbreak have exposed others at the amusement park as well as schools, day cares, emergency departments, airplanes and outpatient clinics, the CDC says. In 2014, the U.S. had the highest number of measles cases reported in over 20 years, at over 600 cases.

The U.S. declared measles eliminated in the country in 2000, meaning it was no longer a disease native to the U.S. Strong immunization rates will keep it that way, which makes parents who do not vaccinate their children a concern to health officials.

A recent poll showed 92% of physicians believe the current outbreak is directly attributable to parents not vaccinating their kids, and 72% believe unvaccinated kids should not be allowed in public schools.

The measles vaccine, called MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella), is nearly 100% effective at preventing measles, which is a highly contagious disease. In kids measles can cause serious complications like pneumonia, long-term brain damage and deafness.

The CDC recommends all kids get two doses of MMR vaccine; the first at age 12 through 15 months and the second at 4 through 6 years. Adults who are unsure whether they got the vaccine should get one, says the agency, since there is no harm in getting it a second time. On Friday, the White House urged parents to listen to health professionals on vaccinations.

Read next: Christie Says Parents Should Have a Choice on Measles Vaccine

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY health

Smoking Can Cost You $1 Million to $2 Million in a Lifetime

smoking cigarette wrapped in money on ashtray
John Knil—Getty Images

Your pack-a-day habit isn't just destroying your lungs, but your bank account as well—more than you ever imagined.

According to the American Lung Association, tobacco kills nearly half a million Americans annually and costs the nation $333 billion per year in health-care expenses and lost productivity to boot. But it’s hard for the average person—specifically, the average smoker—to wrap one’s brain around such an enormous figure.

Coming to the rescue, timed to coincide with the CDC’s Tobacco Awareness Week, is a new state-by-state analysis from WalletHub detailing the lifelong financial costs of smoking for an individual. Because the average price of a pack of cigarettes varies widely around the country—$5.25 in Virginia, $8 in Michigan, $12.85 in New York—the lifetime outlay varies greatly from state to state as well. In all cases, though, the data gathered by WalletHub show that smoking is incredibly costly in addition to being potentially deadly.

The total cost per smoker is estimated at $1,097,690 in South Carolina—and it’s the least expensive state in the nation. A Kansas City Star headline noted that the “cost of smoking is cheap in Missouri … relatively,” as the state ranks as the eighth least expensive on WalletHub’s list, with the total cost for a lifetime of smoking running “only” $1,177,230. At the high end of the spectrum, there’s Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, where the habit costs more than $1.9 million per person in a lifetime. Priciest of all is Alaska, which crosses the $2 million mark.

For a little perspective, federal data estimates that the cost of raising a child to age 18 is about $250,000—a big chunk of change, but only a small fraction of expenses reportedly incurred by smokers.

Right about now, the average smoker (or just the average reader with a healthy degree of skepticism) is probably thinking: hogwash. The process of coming up with such wild figures must involve a fair amount of smoke and mirrors, so to speak, right?

Let’s have a look at what WalletHub did, exactly. By far, the largest expense incorporated into the per-person total is the “tobacco cost per smoker,” measured at $786,346 in South Carolina, up to roughly $1.5 million in Alaska. WalletHub came up with that figure by multiplying the average price of a pack of cigarettes in each state by the number of days in 51 years. Fair enough. There are cheaper ways to go about buying cigarettes, like buying smokes by the case, but many people purchase by the pack.

What’s trickier is the way that WalletHub pumped up its tobacco cost estimates by calculating “the amount of return a person would have earned by instead investing that money in the stock market over the same period. We used the historical average market return rate for the S&P 500 minus the inflation rate during the same time period to reflect the return in present-value terms.” In other words, the assumption is that money not spent on cigarettes would have been dutifully and wisely invested over those same 51 years.

Similar assumptions have also been used in the now (mostly) discredited “latte factor,” which is the theory that holds that people can wind up with millions in the bank by cutting back on everyday expenses like a daily latte. Among other reasons, this line of thinking is questionable because people don’t necessarily invest money that they don’t spend on some product or service—they’re more likely to simply spend that money on something else.

WalletHub also includes other costs that many smokers never think about, factoring in added health care expenses (with state-by-state data from the CDC) and an 8% hit on income due to smoking, as determined in a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

Add up all of these and a few other estimated expenses, and over the course of a half-century, the cost to the pack-a-day smoker runs $1 million to $2 million, according to WalletHub. Are the figures overblown? Well, perhaps a bit. There’s a good argument to be made that the data were construed to come up with totals that are as big and headline-worthy as possible. (After all, they got our attention.)

Nonetheless, even if the figures are on the inflated side, it’s an undeniable reality that the smoking habit costs big bucks over a lifetime. And oh yeah, it can make your lifetime a lot shorter. Let’s not forget that.

TIME Infectious Disease

The Flu Shot Isn’t Working Well This Winter

TIME.com stock photos Health Syringe Needle
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

People who got the vaccine aren't as shielded as they sometimes are

People who got a flu shot this winter are only 23% less likely to get the flu than someone who didn’t get the vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in a new report Thursday.

This flu season, H3N2 flu viruses have been the most predominant, but the CDC reports that about 70% of them have genetically changed so that they are not as responsive to the flu vaccine as they were in the past. This is likely why the vaccine appears to be less effective, a measure the CDC calculates by looking at the number of medical visits related to the flu.

Since the flu vaccine is developed based on early predictions of what flu viruses will be most common during a certain season, it’s always possible that the estimates will be off and the vaccine won’t protect against the most common flu viruses circulating. Since the CDC started tracking flu vaccine effectiveness in 2004, the rates have ranged from 10% to 60%.

When the flu vaccine is less effective, people need to be more cautious and stringent about other ways to prevent contagion, like washing hands and treating the flu with medication if it is contracted. “Physicians should be aware that all hospitalized patients and all outpatients at high risk for serious complications should be treated as soon as possible with one of three available influenza antiviral medications if influenza is suspected,” Joe Bresee, an official in the CDC’s Influenza Division, in a statement.

The report shows that the vaccine is the effective among kids ages 6 to 17. The CDC said it’s classifying this flu season as moderately severe, and that it is similar to the 2012-2013 season.

TIME Infectious Disease

U.S. Hospitals Get Better at Preventing Infections

Empty hospital bed on hospital ward
Phil Fisk—Getty Images

Progress in combatting a worldwide problem

Hospitals in the United States have made progress in lowering the rates of infections patients get while they are there, according to a new report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Wednesday showed that hospitals have cut down on infections caused by medical mistakes and bacteria. Between 2008 and 2013, there’s been a 46% decrease in bloodstream infections caused by germs getting into the blood when tubes are inserted into veins incorrectly. During the same period, hospitals cut surgical site infections by 19%, and catheter-associated urinary tract infections by 6%.

“Hospitals have made real progress to reduce some types of healthcare-associated infections—it can be done,” CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said in a statement. “The key is for every hospital to have rigorous infection control programs to protect patients and healthcare workers, and for health care facilities and others to work together to reduce the many types of infections that haven’t decreased enough.”

The data come from the National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), which tracks infections nationwide from over 14,500 health care facilities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

TIME flu

Here’s Where to Find Out If You’re Likely to Get the Flu

It’s not enough to know if your state is a flu hot zone. Now you can find out if the street you live on is teeming with flu cases

With this year’s flu season nearing epidemic levels — it’s widespread in 43 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — prevention (and preparation) is certainly your best medicine.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of apps and websites that can help. Flu tracking is a popular subject, and ever since Google Flu Trends launched in 2008, it seems everyone wants to know how prevalent flu is — not just in their state and in their city, but in their neighborhood and even their office building. (Facebook can even help you figure out which of your friends might have given you the flu but tracking members’ posts about the illness and its symptoms.)

And while none are perfect, there are a few good ones.

The CDC’s FluView:

It gathers data from clinics, urgent care centers, doctor’s offices and hospitals and reports the number of people coming in with flu-like symptoms — fever, cough, sore throats, muscle aches — and people who test positive for the bug. It offers a good snapshot but it has some shortcomings. Because it logs symptoms in addition to diagnosed cases, there’s a chance that some of the fever and respiratory problems could be something else entirely. It also doesn’t record the countless people who likely just decide to weather out their illness at home with over-the-counter remedies or some chicken soup. There’s also a lag in the reporting, which means FluView can’t provide a real-time look at what the virus is doing at a given time.

The CDC has an epidemiologist studying alternative ways of collecting flu information, including crowdsourcing, to see if the CDC can provide more real time data. “There is potential there,” says Lynnette Brammer, an epidemiologist in the influenza division at CDC. “But with any data set you’ve got to know how to appropriately interpret that data and when you might be over reaching.”

MORE: Why Some Experts Want Mandatory Flu Shots For School Kids

Flu Near You:

This app is more granular, portraying in real time the actual level of flu activity in a given area. It can pinpoint your location down to the street and give you a low-moderate-high reading on flu activity. It’s based on self reports from people who register on the app and voluntarily provide information on their sniffle status on a weekly basis. Blue dots indicate people who are still symptom-free, while yellow dots indicate people who might have some of the symptoms of flu — including fever, coughs, or sore throats — and red dots represent people who meet the CDC criteria for influenza-like illness: fever over 100F and a cough or sore throat that’s not caused by any other known infection.

Self-reporting may not provide an entirely accurate picture either, however. To address such confounding factors, Flu Near Your deletes the first two reports by newcomers, to reduce the possibility that new users are just playing around with the app, but there’s still no way to verify the symptoms that people log in. But so far, Mark Smolinski, director of global health for Skoll Foundation Global Health Threats, which created the app, is confident that the reports are valid, since they track pretty well with the CDC data.

Alexis de Belloy, who pores over the Flu Near You data, says that registration for the app is up 40% compared to last year, and the proportion of them who actively respond to the weekly surveys is also up; the more participants, the stronger and more reliable the signal generated by the users.

The Flu Forecaster:

Jeffrey Shaman, professor of at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, decided to combine a bit of both the CDC and real-time strategies into his flu forecaster, which he launched last year. You can select your city and receive a chart of when flu is likely to peak where you live. It’s based on the same predictive modeling that weather forecasters use — combining information from past flu seasons and current trends to make educated guesses about the ebb and flow of cases in the future. “There are problems with all data, so I don’t think any data should be used in isolation,” he says. “We should consider them all until we have that gold standard.”

And it’s not just an academic exercise. Smolinski points out that critical public health information can be gleaned from flu tracking and forecasting, such as how effective a particular flu season’s vaccine is. By comparing rates of illness among people who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t, doctors can get a good sense of whether the shot is a good match for circulating flu strains or not. It can also help doctors, hospitals and pharmacies to make informed decisions about stocking flu remedies like Tamiflu so everyone who needs them will have access to them.

In Australia, crowd-based online surveillance is becoming the country’s go-to resource on flu tracking. Their system, FluTracking.net, asks participants about whether they have had a fever or cough every week during the flu season; since the program began in 2006, more than 16,000 people now complete the survey regularly. In Europe, 10 countries participate in Influenzanet, an online flu tracking system that also relies on volunteers to report on their symptoms weekly.

“It’s what’s coming down the pike, and what’s going to be in our future,” says Shaman of the real time information from the public. “We already get pollution levels and the pollen count. Why not have a real time flu forecast?”

TIME Addiction

Alcohol Poisoning Kills 6 Americans a Day

CDC says alcohol poisoning deaths are a greater problem than previously thought

America has a drinking problem, with 2,200 people dying each year from alcohol poisoning. That’s an average of six alcohol-related deaths a day, a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report says.

Alcohol poisoning happens when people drink an excessive amount of alcohol in a short amount of time, causing high levels of alcohol in the body to interfere with and even shutdown parts of the brain that are critical for controlling vitals like heart rate, body temperature, and breathing. Eventually, that can lead to death.

Over 38 million Americans binge drink an average of four times a month, and consume an average of eight drinks per binge, according to the new CDC Vital Signs report. Interestingly, the report shows that the majority of alcohol poisoning deaths happen in adults between the ages of 35 and 64, and 76% of those who die are men, revealing binge drinking is not a behavior solely observed among young people. The CDC reports that while the most deaths occur among non-Hispanic whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives have the most deaths per million people. The death rates also vary widely state to state. For example, alcohol poisoning deaths in Alaska add up to 46.5 deaths per million residents, and in Alabama it’s 5.3 per million residents.

The CDC says the report shows alcohol poisoning deaths are a greater problem than previously believed, and that the numbers are likely an underestimate since alcohol-related deaths are known to be underreported. Alcoholism was a factor in 30% of the deaths and other drug use was a factor in only 3%.

“Alcohol poisoning deaths are a heartbreaking reminder of the dangers of excessive alcohol use, which is a leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.,” CDC principal deputy director Ileana Arias said in a statement.

In response, the CDC is calling for more members of the medical community to screen and talk to their patients about alcohol, since numbers show only one in six U.S. adults has reported ever talked about their drinking with a health professional. States with stronger alcohol policies also have less binge drinking, and should partner with community workers including police and health workers for better programs, CDC says.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser