Health

New official state data from the Ohio Department of Health show 4,854 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, a 20 percent increase from the previous year.

The new data add to evidence from around the Ohio Valley showing deaths related to the opioid crisis continued to rise in 2017 as state records begin to reflect the fatalities related to the powerful drug fentanyl.

Fentanyl Fatalities

Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Director Dr. Mark Hurst said illegally produced fentanyl was the driving factor in the fatality increase.

“Not only the fentanyl alone, but also fentanyl which is sometimes mixed with other street drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine,” he said.

The data show fentanyl was involved in 71 percent of all overdose deaths. Cocaine-related  deaths increased 39 percent and methamphetamine deaths were up 130 percent.

A recent report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy found 1,565 died from drug overdoses last year, up 11.5 percent from 2016.

Fentanyl played a factor in more than half of the overdose cases in which a toxicology report was available.

“Fentanyl is the deadliest and most addictive drug our nation has ever seen,” Van Ingram, KODCP executive director, said in a news release. “The fact that people continue to use it – despite the obvious risk – shows just how addictive these drugs are. That’s why we have to make every effort to intervene with a comprehensive treatment response.”

Preliminary data in West Virginia indicate there were 1,011 overdose deaths last year, a record high for the state.

Statistics indicate the grim totals will not decrease this year.

West Virginia’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta said the total number of fatal overdoses so far in 2018 indicate a higher toll in his state than last year.

Glimmer of Hope

But the news is not entirely bleak.

In Ohio, deaths related to prescription opioids and heroin were reported at an eight-year and four-year low, respectively.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said it’s important to highlight successes in the fight against the epidemic.

“That doesn’t mean we fly a banner that says ‘Mission Accomplished.’ But every once in a while I think it’s important for the public to see that there are bright spots,” Kasich said.

Kasich attributed the decrease to statewide efforts to reduce the supply of misused prescription opioids.

In West Virginia, the projected rate of increase in overdose fatalities appears to be leveling off, according to Gupta.

“From ‘17-’18 it’s projected at about 6 percent [increase],” he said. “So we’re certainly seeing a flattening of the curve. Up, but they’re not as up as they were from ‘16 to ‘17.”   

Gupta anticipates fewer overdose fatalities in future months due to evidence-based approaches to the opioid epidemic across the region. Those include the availability of naloxone, increased medication assisted treatment and the reduction in opioid prescriptions.

Note: This updates a July 27, 2018, story to include new data on overdose fatalities.