Drug and alcohol abuse are now the leading cause of accidental deaths in Douglas County, surpassing automobile crashes and household or workplace falls, according to a new report.
And within the category of drug and alcohol abuse, a new leading factor has emerged: abuse of prescription pain medications known as opioids.
Those trends were reported in the latest Community Health Assessment for Douglas County, a report compiled by the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department based on vital statistics data from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Although cancer and heart disease are still the leading causes of death overall, as they are nationwide, within the category of “accidental” deaths, opioid abuse is now the No. 1 factor, and the rate has been climbing for the last decade.
“The numbers are on the rise. We were able to show that,” Chris Tilden, director of community health at the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, said during a recent interview. “And what we recognize is that because it’s an emerging issue here, I think we really do have an opportunity to develop and implement interventions before the problem does become potentially as severe as it is in other places around the country.”
Although narcotic drugs such as heroin and opium have been around for centuries, experts say the recent rise in opioid deaths is due to a relatively new class of prescription pain medications, including fentanyl, codeine, oxycodone and hydromorphone. Some of the brand names include Percoset, OxyContin, Lorcet and Vicodin.
“Certainly we think that some or all of them have been implicated in some of the deaths in Douglas County,” Tilden said.
The latest community health assessment looked at data from 2010 through 2015. During that time, it said there were 52 deaths in Douglas County related to drug and alcohol abuse, including 32 in which opioid abuse was a factor. That’s up from just 19 opioid-related deaths for the five-year period from 2005 to 2009.
Meanwhile, during the most recent period, there were 50 accidental falls, 36 motor vehicle deaths and 39 “other” kinds of accidents.
Tilden, however, said the number of deaths is not the only cause for concern.
“Deaths are kind of the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Certainly drug abuse, alcohol abuse leads to a myriad of social issues. It can rip families apart. It has real detrimental effects on a community, so it’s something we need to address as a public health problem.”
When it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, the report noted, Douglas County has more than its fair share.
Nearly one in four county residents can be classified as binge drinkers, the report said, compared with 15.6 percent statewide. Also, 7.7 percent of adults in Douglas County are classified as heavy drinkers, compared with 5.1 percent statewide.
Still, the recent rise in opioid-related deaths is alarming public officials, not just locally but statewide and nationally. And several efforts are underway to address it.
Chrissy Mayer, director of prevention and leadership for DCCCA in Lawrence, said that organization is leading much of the local effort.
“We’re doing a lot of different things around safe use, storage and disposal of prescription meds, prescriber education and community education in general,” she said, “because most people feel that since it’s a prescription and it’s prescribed from your doctor, it’s safe, and people don’t really think about the implications of misuse.”
At the state level, the Kansas State Board of Pharmacy, along with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, operates a prescription drug tracking system called K-TRACS, which uses electronic health records to keep track of prescriptions and controlled substances throughout the state.
And the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services recently awarded $2.6 million in grants to four organizations to develop strategies for addressing and preventing opioid abuse.
Among those was a $657,000 grant to the University of Kansas Health System to fund opioid treatment for uninsured Kansans.
Lauren Lucht, the project director, said the hospital has been treating opioid addiction since 1966 and that its program is now gaining national attention.
“Our Addictions Clinic offers full service Opioid treatment, including medication monitoring, substance abuse counseling, case management, psychotherapy, group counseling and psychiatric care,” she said in an email. “We look forward to expanding our community partnerships as we fight the opioid epidemic in Kansas.”