Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 21, 2012

Drug overdoses spike: Local officials: SW.Va. deaths triple state average

By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

TAZEWELL, Va. — The rate of drug overdose deaths in Southwest Virginia is now triple the state average with several local counties leading the state in prescription drug-related overdoses, local officials said Tuesday.

Tazewell County Commonwealth Attorney Dennis Lee said Tazewell County alone records at least one overdose-related death a month.

“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,” Lee said. “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.”

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.

“There has been a spike between 1997 through about 2002 or 2003,” Lee said. “The number of overdose deaths from that time period has actually tripled in this region. This corresponds with the drastic change in the culture with Oxycotin. That drug started being abused in the late 1990s, and usage has remained constant since about 2005 or so up until the present.”

According to the Virginia Department of Health, overdose became the number one cause of death for Virginia residents aged 35 to 54 from 2004 to 2009. Overdose was 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 poisoning from drug overdose is the leading causes of injury hospitalization for Virginia residents between age 15 and 44.

Lee said overdose deaths are even outnumbering deaths caused by traffic accidents.

“The number of overdose deaths surpassed the number car accident deaths as the leading cause of accidental deaths in America,” Lee said. “This is an epidemic throughout the United States. Southwest Virginia is different than urban areas and more popular areas where overdoses are things like heroin and cocaine. In our area it is almost completely prescription drugs.”

Lee said federal initiatives like the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) as well as local programs must work together to find solutions to the region’s drug problem.

“We want to start more public awareness of this as well as to explore avenues through legislation and things such as HIDTA to combat this,” Lee said. “One of the things our local coalitions have been pushing for a number of years is mandatory prescription monitoring programs. These programs would require any doctor to run a test on patients and provide a print out that this patient is not getting narcotics from another doctor before any narcotics are prescribed.”

Lee said law enforcement are also advocating legislation to prevent “doctor shopping.”

“Other things law enforcement pushes for is mandating that the medical community report people that are doctor shopping,” he said. “The majority of drugs on the street in our area are prescription drugs coming from local physicians or more often physicians out of this area. We want a national database for doctors to be able to use and for law enforcement to use, to determine if someone is getting prescriptions from another state and bringing them into this state or getting them here and taking them out of state.”

Lee said he and many other law enforcement and health officials discussed issues faced by Southwest Virginia as well as drug overdose statistics during a regional summitt in Wytheville, Va., last week.

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com쇓