Pubdate: Sat, 26 Mar 2016
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2016 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Zaz Hollander


WASILLA -- Soaring heroin overdose death rates in Alaska still don't 
outpace the rate of fatal overdoses from prescription opioid pain 
relievers, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Deaths from heroin increased from seven in 2009 to 36 deaths last 
year, according to a bulletin released Thursday by the state Division 
of Public Health.

The number of fatal overdoses from prescription opioids was far 
higher: 83 deaths last year, down from 104 deaths in 2009.

Fatal overdoses linked to prescription pain medications dropped 
considerably in 2010 after pharmaceutical companies changed 
formulations to deter abuse but then began rising again, according to 
Dr. Jay Butler, the state's chief medical officer and director of the 
public health division.

Alaska's prescription opioid pain relievers overdose death rate was 
more than double the national rate in 2012, the most recent year 
national data was available. Alaska's heroin-associated overdose 
death rate -- 3 per every 100,000 people -- was more than 50 percent 
higher than the national rate.

Public health officials say Alaska is in the midst of a heroin 
epidemic the state is ill-prepared to handle, given a lack of detox 
and treatment options here. A bill moving through the Legislature 
would remove barriers to the use of naloxone, medication that can 
reverse the respiratory depression that causes overdose deaths.

There's generally less talk about the dangers of prescription pain 
medications, except as a stepping stone to heroin for some users.

Asked if public awareness of prescription opioid overdose risk is 
getting lost in the current focus on heroin, Butler said, "it's not 
an either/or."

Of the roughly three-dozen heroin deaths last year, 19 of the people 
also had prescription opioids in their systems, he said. "That tells 
us it's more than people moving from prescription opioids to heroin."

People may supplement with pain medications "between hits of heroin" 
or use heroin to increase the effects of pills, Butler said.

State public health officials say the findings point to the need to 
adopt new chronic pain management guidelines and increasing naloxone 

The bulletin addressed drug overdose deaths in general, a category 
that also includes deaths from substances such as cocaine or 
stimulants. Total overdose deaths in Alaska dropped from 131 in 2009 
to 121 last year.

Overdose death rates remained highest among males and middle-aged 
adults, according to the bulletin. The regional distribution of drug 
overdose deaths was considerably higher in regions with urban centers 
and growing populations, although all regions were affected.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom