Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 28, 2012

Overdose deaths — More alarming news from Virginia

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— The rate of drug overdose deaths in Southwest Virginia is now nearly triple the state average. And, unfortunately, local counties in our region continue to lead the state in terms of prescription drug-related overdoses.

The news from the recent regional summit in Wytheville on prescription drug abuse is alarming. And it’s another reminder of the painful toll the region’s prescription drug abuse epidemic is taking on families across Southwest Virginia, as well as neighboring southern West Virginia.

An estimated 270 Southwest Virginia residents died from drug overdoses last year, more than three times the overdose rate in the late 1990s at the beginning of the prescription narcotic abuse epidemic, according to data from the summit.

“Basically, Southwest Virginia as a whole has had many more times the average per capita overdose rate in the Commonwealth for a number of years,” Tazewell County Commonwealth Attorney Dennis Lee said last week. “Buchanan, Russell, Tazewell and Dickenson counties lead the state in per capita overdoses. Nearly all of these deaths are from prescription drugs, primarily oxycodone, methadone, hydrocodone and fentanyl. On average, we see one or two confirmed overdose deaths a month in Tazewell County. That doesn’t include the overdoses where a person is revived or given medical attention to prevent them from dying.”

Lee says overdose deaths are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in America — outnumbering deaths caused by traffic accidents.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, overdoses became the number one cause of death for Virginia residents aged 35 to 54 from 2004 to 2009. Overdoses were also the second leading cause of death for residents age 25 to 34 and the third leading cause of death for those age 15 to 24 and 55 to 64. The health department also found that poisoning from drug overdoses is now the leading causes of injury hospitalization for Virginia residents between age 15 and 44.

Given the alarming statistics, it is clear that there is still much work to be done if we are to stem this deadly tide.

Lee says federal initiatives, like the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, and local programs must work together to find solutions to the region’s drug problem. He is calling for increased public awareness as well as legislation to address the problem. For example, Lee said local coalitions have been pushing for a number of years for mandatory prescription monitoring programs. These programs would require any doctor to run a test on patients and provide a print-out that the patient is not getting narcotics from another doctor before any narcotics are prescribed, Lee said.

Local law enforcement officials in Southwest Virginia also are advocating legislation to prevent doctor shopping, or the practice of patients going to multiple physicians in order to receive narcotics that they intentionally abuse.

Any and all efforts available to combat the prescription drug abuse epidemic should be actively pursued.