The Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 allowed physicians to prescribe it as part of office-based treatment for addiction to heroin and prescription opioids such as OxyContin, methadone and hydracodone.
Buprenorphine has less potential for abuse, but it can cause shallow or slow breathing, vomiting and sleepiness, especially in people who are not accustomed to opiates, said Karen Thomas, certified poison information specialist at the Utah Poison Control Center and adjunct professor of pharmacotherapy at the University of Utah.
She was the primary author of a study that began after Poison Control noticed a rising number of calls about the medicine.
The research by Poison Control, the University of Utah School of Medicine's Department of Family and Preventive Health, and the Utah Department of Health was published Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Thomas said many children have had to be hospitalized after accidental exposure.
"The scary thing we found was that there was respiratory arrest," she said. "Little children stopped breathing."
Because the drug is fairly safe for addicts, the dangers to others have not been widely publicized, she said.
It's not clear how the two Utah adults and teenager died, she said.
Researchers used data from the Utah Department of Health's Controlled Substance Database for analysis. But privacy issues prevented them from teasing out details, such as how much buprenorphine contributed to the deaths, or whether the user had been prescribed the drug or was using someone else's medicine, Thomas said.
The study found that in Utah, the number of doctors and other professionals prescribing buprenorphine rose from 16 to 1,088 between 2002 and 2011, and the number of patients filling buprenorphine prescriptions shot up 444 percent, from 22 in 2002 to 9,793 in 2011.
The number of calls to Poison Control by people concerned about exposure to the drug now averages 81 per year. Using buprenorphine
The Utah Poison Control Center has these suggestions if a child is exposed to buprenorphine:
Call Poison Control immediately at 1-800-222-1222. Do not wait for symptoms to appear.
Keep the medicine in a locked box, bag or cabinet out of sight and out of reach of children.
Keep buprenorphine in its original, labeled prescription container with child-resistant closure, and discard the film wrapping in the trash immediately after use.