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Fentanyl And Heroin Drive Virginia’s Death Toll From Drug Overdoses

17 April 2017, 10:03 am EDT By Kalyan Kumar Tech Times
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US teen drug overdose deaths have increased by 19% after years of decline
The escalating drug overdose deaths in Virginia are associated with the use of synthetic opioids like heroin and prescription fentanyl. The role of the latter in the opioid epidemic has been highlighted over the years and the situation is causing concern.   ( Spencer Platt | Getty Images )

Virginia's soaring death toll from drug overdose has been widely reported. Not only are the casualties rising each year, but drug overdose deaths numbering 1,420 in 2016 surpassed other causes of unnatural deaths such as motor vehicle accidents and gun violence.

Assessment of the factors behind the overdose deaths has pointed to the use of synthetic opioids such as heroin and prescription fentanyl.

According to health officials, Virginia had a 38 percent surge in drug overdose between 2015 and 2016, with synthetic opioids forming a vital part in it.

The review by the state medical examiner found the role of fentanyl variants in the drug menace going up by 175 percent. Fentanyl as a painkiller is highly stronger than morphine.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths in West Virginia represent 41.5 cases per 100,000 people. This ratio is the highest in the United States and three times higher than the national average. Significantly, in 1999, the ratio was below the national average.

Worsening Opioid Addiction In Virginia

According to State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine, the situation is set to worsen as opioid addiction has become an epidemic and a public health emergency.

"It's not just heroin causing people to die. It's fentanyl and synthetic fentanyl with different potencies. We're now seeing carfentanil [a drug 100 times more potent than fentanyl, used to tranquilize elephants]. Someone who's getting heroin laced with carfentanil could die easily," said Levine.

Rising Use Of Fentanyl

The Virginia Department of Health noted that the state's drug overdose deaths in 2015 jumped to 1,028 from 799 in 2012. The rise in opioid overdose deaths soared from 572 to 811 during the same period.

Increasing use of fentanyl and heroin is emerging as a stark pattern in the drug overdose problem.

Fentanyl use has been up since 2013. Of the 572 opioid overdose deaths, 185 were attributed to fentanyl and heroin-related use. The rest of the toll was linked to prescription drugs that caused 435 deaths.

In 2016, there were 1,133 deaths from opioid overdoses, 810 of which were associated with fentanyl and/or heroin. Prescription overdoses accounted for 469 deaths. The 2016 figures show deaths related to fentanyl have tripled compared to the figures in 2015.

Reason For Drug Overdose In America

As for reasons that are driving drug overdose deaths, some experts point to an exponential increase of legally prescribed opiate painkillers such as OxyContin (oxycodone) and others.

They formed 74 percent of the prescription drug overdoses in 2008, according to the CDC.

In fact, doctors who prescribe such powerful painkillers were making the patients potential addicts by driving up their cravings.

A study conducted by researchers at West Virginia University found that a large number of people who take an overdose of prescription drugs had tapped doctors and pharmacies as sources to quench their drug addiction.

The study drew the conclusion that that 75 percent of those killed by prescription drug overuse in West Virginia were not real addicts looking for a high.

They were people who were unaware of the consequences coming from drugs that are legally prescribed by doctors. They were in the dark that those prescription drugs can turn lethal in certain combinations and induce many side effects and cause death.

Budget Pressures On Indigent Burial Program

Meanwhile, the soaring death toll in Virginia is also affecting the state's burial fund earmarked for indigent families.

The fund of $2 million for funeral assistance is almost depleted. According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, for the current fiscal year ending on June 30, it had applications for 1,508 burials.

With the fund fast reaching its limit, only 63 more burials can be funded. The officials cited the rising drug-related deaths as the main reason behind the exhausted funds.

"When you get an overdose, typically it's going to be a younger individual who's not financially in a great position," noted Robert C. Kimes of the state's Funeral Directors Association.

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