Opioid Deaths Reach Record High In Kentucky

By Kelly Burch 06/29/17

"Users have no way of knowing what drugs they are taking, and even the smallest amounts [of fentanyl] can trigger a lethal reaction.”

A hand turning off a flatlining electrocardiogram

Drug overdose deaths in Kentucky reached an all-time high last year, mirroring a national trend that shows that the opioid epidemic is rising faster than ever.

1,404 people died after overdosing, up from 1,248 in 2015, according to data recently released by the Office of Drug Control Policy. The number is likely to rise as additional data on deaths from 2016, including toxicology reports, come into the office.

“Nearly every community in Kentucky experienced a fatal drug overdose last year — if that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is,” Gov. Matt Bevin said in a news release in The Lexington Herald-Leader. “We don’t have the luxury of pretending there isn’t a massive problem.”

State data showed that fentanyl is driving the overdose rates, accounting for nearly two-thirds of fatal overdoses in the state’s capital, Louisville. Overall, fentanyl was found in 47% of people who died from drug overdoses in Kentucky last year. That’s 34% higher than in 2015. 

“That’s what really has driven up these numbers,” Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, told WDRB. “It’s the real threat that we face now.”

“Users have no way of knowing what drugs they are taking, and even the smallest amounts can trigger a lethal reaction,” Ingram said. “We’ve seen cases where a bad batch of drugs has led to dozens of overdoses in a single community overnight.” 

Ingram said that drug cartels are filling the drug market with fentanyl, which can be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin.

“To me, the story in this (overdose) report is the cartels flooding the illicit drug market with fentanyl,” Ingram said. According to the DEA, the fentanyl is produced overseas and then smuggled into the U.S. through Mexico.

However, fentanyl can also be purchased on the internet.

While heroin-related deaths rose from 28% in 2015 to 34% last year, fatalities involving prescription pills decreased slightly. Oxycodone was present in 19% of deaths, down 4% from the year before, and hydrocodone was seen in 16% of cases, down 5%. The reason may be that users are switching to heroin, which is cheaper and often more readily available.

State officials did point out that naloxone has undoubtedly saved lives in Kentucky.

“Think of where the numbers could be” without it, Ingram said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.