Opioid Overdoses Up In Arizona, While Heroin Deaths Triple

By  Will Stone
Published: Friday, June 2, 2017 - 5:00am
Updated: Friday, June 2, 2017 - 9:59am

Two people. That’s how many die on average from opioid overdoses in Arizona every day, according to new data from state health officials.

Deaths from opioids in Arizona continue to rise steadily. Last year saw the biggest spike, about 16 percent over the previous year, which amounts to more than a 70 percent increase since 2012.

While the majority of those approximately 800 deaths were due to prescription drugs, heroin is rapidly catching up.

“Our heroin deaths have tripled since 2012,” said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

"We know that approximately 80 percent of heroin users started as prescription drugs users," Christ said, adding that the public health response become different for that population once they move to street drugs.

Some experts say the reason for the dramatic rise is in part because heroin has become much more common in Arizona recently.

Dr. Daniel Brooks, who directs the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, said five years ago most of the calls they received were related to methamphetamine. Now it's heroin.

"It’s a combination of having more of the drug around and being used, as well as having more dangerous formulations of the drug being used,” Brooks said, like the pain-killer fentanyl which is many times more potent than heroin.

The report from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows white people between the ages of 45 and 54 are most at risk in Arizona of dying from opioids.

Over the past decade, about 80 percent of those who died from opioids had gone to the hospital or a medical provider within the last five years, but only about a third were seen because of an opioid-related issue.

"That's a touch point for the system," Christ said. "So improving hospital discharge guidelines may present an opportunity to get those people into treatment and intervene before death."

Brooks said treating people who may be inclined to abuse opioids, or are already doing so, can be challenging in the emergency room setting, which is where many of these people come for treatment.

Patients don't necessarily have a relationship of trust with those doctors and having a frank conversation can be difficult, Brooks said.

But another reason, Brooks said, is that hospitals are equipped for acute overdoses or withdrawal, but not for rehab.

"There are just very limited resources for treating these patients and that's one of the things Arizona is going to struggle with," Brooks said, citing the shortage of facilities for those with psychiatric disorders and substance abuse issues.

Brooks said the state has to actively seek out those who are at high risk of abusing opioids.

Governor Doug Ducey has taken a number of actions to address the opioid epidemic, including establishing a panel that will review every drug-related death in the state.

Christ said that will give a better much more detailed picture about how those deaths could have been prevented.

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