State of Affairs: Heroin Deaths, Hospitalizations Triple in Alaska
Chief Medical Officer: “Increased Painkiller Use Has Caused ‘Opioid Hunger’ in State”
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A new Epidemiology Bulletin released by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says that heroin overdose deaths have tripled in the state since 2008 and hospitalizations associated with the addiction have doubled during the same time.
Alaska currently has the 29th highest drug overdose mortality rate in the nation, according to a report by the Trust for America’s Health, Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic”. Alaska’s mortality rate due to drug overdoses was about 11.6 per 100,000 people in 2010, an increase of 55% from 1999, yet still below the national rate of 12.4 per 100,0000 people.
“The drastic increase in opioid pain reliever use over the past two decades has created ‘opioid hunger’,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Butler said in a press release. “Combined with the influx of cheap and available heroin, this has created a perfect storm of heroin addiction and deaths.”
Dr. Butler went on to say we need to effectively treat addiction as a chronic disease and reduce it by preventing inappropriate prescriptions and diversions of opioid pain relievers.
Between 2008-2012, there were, on average, 116 deaths annually in Alaska due to drug overdoses. Of these deaths – some of which involved multiple types of drugs – about 70% involved prescription drugs, and about 32% involved illicit drugs. According to a State of Alaska Epidemiology bulletin, there were 283 hospitalizations due to opioid pain reliever poisonings or overdoses reported in the Alaska Trauma Registry between 2001-2010.
According to the DHSS, alcohol currently ranks as Alaska’s biggest drug problem, but certainly not its only.
The bulletin notes that 231 of these hospitalizations – 82% – resulted from suicide attempts, and only 39 (14%) were due to unintentional poisonings. The data reflects only reports to poison control centers, about 41% of which were ultimately managed in a health-care facility. About half of these reports reflect intentional exposure.
“Heroin and other opioids are also a critical concern,” says Public Information Officer Dawnell Smith. “Alcohol remains the primary drug of choice in Alaska, but heroin and opioid use are on the rise.”
Smith says all have devastating effects on users, their families, and their communities.
“The State provides funds to local organizations, which in turn provide community-based treatment services to Alaskans,” says Smith. “In recent years, a focused effort in this area has allowed us to expand our geographical reach and support outpatient services in more communities so that more Alaskans can access services closer to their own homes.”
At least 14 states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia have enacted drug overdose “Good Samaritan” laws – often called “911 Good Samaritan” laws – that provide immunity or limited immunity from prosecution for individuals who report or seek assistance for overdoses from law enforcement and/or healthcare providers.
Most existing drug overdose good Samaritan laws have been in effect only a short period of time.
“We have not been able to determine if there is a positive impact directly related to the law either on increasing calls to 911 or decreasing overdose deaths,” says one researcher. “This is not because there is no effect, but rather because passage of the law facilitated the unfolding of a chain of events that was much broader than the simple legal immunity clause.”
No studies have yet been conducted analyzing the effects of such laws on the number of drug overdoses occurring in a state. Such an analysis would also need to take into account other factors, such as changes in prevalence of the use of drugs in these states.
For a timeline of alcohol in Alaska, click HERE.
Alaska has a Good Samaritan Law (AS 11.71.311) that grants immunity for persons reporting and requesting emergency aid for an overdose. Most recently enacted in Mississippi, this type of law is a huge victory for any state and its citizens.
“A bill to provide immunity from civil penalties for prescribing, providing and administering an opioid overdose drug (i.e. Naloxone) was introduced during the first session of the 29th Legislature,” says Smith. “The bill passed in the State Senate, but is still under consideration in the State House.”
Several pieces of legislation are currently under consideration by the 29th Alaska State Legislature, and more will likely be added to the list during the 2016 legislative session. Information on these can be found by clicking HERE.
Still, the state averages 65 painkiller prescriptions per 100 people, according to a recent CDC report. And overdoses are increasing.
“Due to improved documentation of heroin on death certificates, previous years should consider death certificate data as an under ascertainment of the problem in Alaska,” says Smith. “Several death certificates only notated ‘multidrug’ or ‘opiate’ overdose without distinguishing the substance of abuse.”
Alaska has at least two needle exchange program sites, which can be found by clicking HERE.
The Last Frontier State is far above most others in the reduction of prescription painkiller addictions at 65 prescriptions per 100 people. Prescription painkiller addiction often leads to heroin use when a person addicted can no longer obtain their drug of choice.
Just in the past 3 weeks, Anchorage has seen seven deaths among the homeless population, and officials are suspecting drug use. Juneau Police say alcohol played a part in the recent theft of two flags from the roof of the State Capitol. Thirty-two people have been hospitalized in the past week because of Spice.
Alaska has made strides, and like every other state, the fight is obviously not over. Vertava Health is here to help. If you or someone you love is battling the disease of addiction, contact us 24/7 at 1.888.614.2251 or log ontowww.addictioncampuses.com.