Study: 79 Percent Increase In Accidental Drug Overdose Deaths In Athens County

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Athens County experienced a 79 percent increase in unintentional drug overdose deaths when the six-year period that ended in 2012 is compared to the prior six-year period, according to an Ohio Department of Health study.

The numbers place Athens County’s death rate per 100,000 at 15.5 which is on par from most of Southeast Ohio, but higher than much of the rest of the state.

According to the study, there were 33 unintentional drug overdose deaths in the county from 2001-2006 and 59 from 2007-2012.

“Drug overdose is never something you want to see but drugs have become more prevalent in Athens County and it’s an issue we’re trying to deal with,” said Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn.

The study included the following break-down of numbers by year:

2001 (6), 2002 (4), 2003 (4), 2004 (3), 2005 (7), 2006 (9) — 33 total
2007 (13), 2008 (8), 2009 (10), 2010 (6), 2011 (12), 2012 (10) — 59 total

These numbers are similar to ones recorded by the Athens City-County Health Department.

Administrator Charles Hammer told The Messenger that the department’s findings are based off of death certificates which specifically attribute the death to overdose (which would include suicides). He reported 16 deaths in 2007, 19 in 2008, eight in 2009, nine in 2010, 13 in 2011 and 12 in 2012, for a total of 77.

“Clearly, based on the numbers, there’s an increase,” Hammer said. “Some years are up, some are down but there’s not a dramatic spike one way or the other.

“When we pulled the numbers, we were surprised,” Hammer added. “We thought there’d be more because of the notion that there’s a lot of drug activity and opiate abuse in the county.”

Across the state, there were 1,914 unintentional drug overdose deaths in Ohio in 2012 alone. The reports states that this is the highest number of deaths on record for drug overdose and surpasses 2011’s total of 1,765 by 8.4 percent.

“In 2012, five Ohioans died every day from unintentional drug overdose, or one every five hours,” the study concludes.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of injury-related death in Ohio. Opioids are the driving factor behind the trend with approximately two-thirds of the deaths related to an opioid.

“Prescription opioids are involved in most of the unintentional drug overdoses and have largely driven the rise in deaths over the past decade,” the study states. “Unlike previous years, prescription opioid-related deaths decreased slightly in 2012, but there was a sharp increase in heroin-related deaths.”

Deaths related to heroin increased from 16 percent (233) in 2008 to 35.5 percent (680) of drug overdose cases in 2012. More than a third of overdose deaths involve prescription pills. Multiple drug use attributes to more than half of overdose deaths. Opioids counted for 7,929 overdose deaths in Ohio over the 12-year period. There were a total of 14,572 people killed as a result of unintentional drug overdose in that time frame in Ohio.

Taking a look at some nearby counties, Vinton County’s unintentional drug overdose rate rose 60 percent from 10 to 16 for the two six-year time periods. Hocking County jumped 260 percent, going from 10 deaths to 36. Jackson County rose 69 percent with 26 deaths increasing to 44, Pike County went up 192 percent with 13 deaths increasing to 38, Perry County jumped up 243 percent with seven deaths increasing to 24 and Meigs County moved up 33 percent from 12 deaths to 16.

Both on a local and state level, there are numerous programs trying to combat this trend, including programs that monitor prescribed pills and try to reduce prescription drug abuse.

There are programs that educate healthcare and service providers of prescription drugs.

Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) is in place in several counties. Naloxone has the ability to counter the effects of an overdose in progress.

There are programs that deal with pregnant women who are addicted to drugs — reportedly about 10 percent of children born in Athens County are born addicted to drugs — and there are numerous education programs built around the dangers of drug abuse.

“The report shows us that deaths from prescription drug overdoses are down, but that overdoses from heroin are up,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in an email to The Messenger.

“This mirrors what I hear every day from those on the front lines, including law enforcement, treatment providers and parents. Heroin injects addiction, deception and death in the lives of so many young people.”

“There are efforts being made to address the problem on various levels,” Hammer added. “Law enforcement is reducing the flow of illegal narcotics and doctors are more aware of the abuse of prescription pills. It’s a sieve, though. You catch some, but a lot still comes through.”

Interim Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith said that he hopes that between the county’s efforts to treat addiction and his office’s efforts to “put drug dealers out of business,” the drug overdose rates will be greatly reduced.

Blackburn pointed out the new Community Justice Initiative which involves several area agencies as one way that the county is “trying to do better” when it comes to fighting the trend.

“We need to do things to better educate people about drugs, help those that are addicted and convict and put away those who are dealing,” he said.

“It’s very complicated,” Hammer said. “Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done.”