Pubdate: Fri, 19 Jun 2015
Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)
Copyright: 2015 Associated Press
Authors: John Raby and Jonathan Mattise


CHARLESTON, W.VA. (AP) - West Virginia has the highest rate of 
overdose deaths in the U.S., according to a report released 
Wednesday, further spotlighting Appalachia's festering drug abuse 
problem, which is also fueling a rise in hepatitis C in one of the 
nation's poorest regions.

There were about 34 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 West Virginia 
residents in 2011-13, up dramatically from 22 deaths per 100,000 
people in 200709, according to the report released Wednesday by the 
nonprofit groups Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood 
Johnson Foundation.

West Virginia's drug overdose death rate was more than double the 
national average, the report says. Citing statistics from the Centers 
for Disease Control, it found that West Virginia's rate far surpassed 
the second-highest state, New Mexico, which was at 28.2 deaths per 
100,000. The national average was 13.4.

"It's more than disappointing. It's devastating," said U.S. Attorney 
Booth Goodwin in Charleston. "Can I say that I'm shocked? I'm not, 
because I know the depth of this problem."

The reasons why vary, but they are intertwined, said Rahul Gupta, 
West Virginia's state health officer and a physician.

He cited the impoverished region's history of poor education, along 
with the isolation of people and communities in its rugged 
mountainous terrain. There's a limited offering of substance abuse 
programs, though it's growing, but services can be far away and hard to reach.

Those factors similarly drive West Virginia toward the bottom of many 
other health and quality-of-life indicators, Gupta said.

"Whether it's drug use, whether it's mental health, it's physical 
health, a number of those things are going hand in hand," Gupta said.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 
found that hepatitis C cases across four Appalachian states - 
Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia - more than tripled 
between 2006 and 2012. Kentucky now has the nation's highest rate of 
acute hepatitis C.

The recent outbreak of hepatitis C, which can be transmitted by 
injecting drugs or having unprotected sex, is centered in rural areas 
among young, white drug users.

Gupta said West Virginia has seen 3,000 drug overdose deaths in the 
past five years, or an average of 600 a year.

In Cabell County alone this year, there were at least 32 overdose 
deaths and 360 drug overdoses, including from heroin and prescription 
drugs, said Jim Johnson, the city of Huntington's director of drug 
control policy.

While police have tried to cut down on the supply side of illegal 
drugs with at least 406 drug-related arrests in Huntington this year, 
leaders in the Ohio River county of 97,000 residents have also have 
turned to addiction treatment programs.

"The drug problem is our No. 1 problem," Johnson said. "We're a 
community that's hitting it head-on. We're not trying to sweep it 
under the table. We're trying to be aggressive."

West Virginia's drug woes reflect a national trend.

The report said drug overdose deaths have more than doubled in the 
past 14 years nationally and have resulted in 44,000 deaths per year, 
half of which are prescription-drug related. Drug overdoses have 
become the leading cause of injury in 36 states, including West 
Virginia, surpassing motor vehicle-related deaths.

In West Virginia, two state agencies have an ongoing lawsuit seeking 
to unseal court records about drug shipments from 11 pharmaceutical 
distributors. The suit alleges the companies have helped fuel the 
state's pain pill epidemic by shipping excessive amounts of 
prescription painkillers to southern West Virginia pharmacies.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom