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Insight & Analysis / Women Fueling Growth of Overdose Epidemic

Deaths involving heroin have quadrupled since 2000, according to shocking new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rate of heroin-related deaths has increased from 0.7 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 2.7 per 100,000 in 2013. The main populations contributing to this increase? Women and white (non-Hispanic) Americans. Despite this increase, overdoses among men are consistently four times higher than that of women.

Unfortunately, Colorado is no exception to this national trend. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reports that heroin-related deaths have increased threefold since 1999 (see figure 1). From 2012 to 2013, deaths related to the drug increased from 91 to 118 people. In 2014, this number jumped even higher to 151 deaths.

One approach to combat the overdose epidemic may be to focus on non-medical prescription drug abuse. Many heroin addictions are ignited by an initial dependence on prescription drugs, usually obtained as pain relievers for surgeries or other medical problems. People who become addicted to pain pills sometimes switch to heroin because of the cost. Heroin has a bigger bang for its buck compared to prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Vicodin. In a recent CDC survey, three quarters of people who admitted addiction to heroin after the year 2000 said their first regular opioid was a prescription drug. The number of people currently addicted to prescription opioids in Colorado could mean another spike in heroin addictions if trends continue as they have in the past.

In 2011, Colorado ranked second worst among the 50 states in nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers with a 6 percent abuse rate among persons aged 12 and up. Only Oregon was worse, with a 6.37 percent rate. The highest rate of prescription drug abuse in Colorado was among young adults aged 18 to 25.

Many lives could be saved by the drug Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. Basically, it buys a drug user more time to get to a hospital. Senate Bill 15-053, passed in Colorado this spring,  expands access to the drug, allowing physicians to prescribe and dispense the drug to opiate users, their families or friends and first responders such as fire fighters.

But the surge in heroin use could pose another threat, as highlighted by a recent outbreak of HIV in a rural Indiana community. In April 2015, 135 people were diagnosed with HIV, a large portion of a community of 4,200 people. The outbreak was caused by needle sharing among prescription drug users injecting the opioid oxymorphone. Some of those infected admitted to using heroin. It’s a stark reminder of the many dangers of opioid abuse.

Filed In: Community Health

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