King County drug-overdose deaths up; heroin spotlighted

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King County drug-overdose deaths up; heroin spotlighted

58% increase in heroin-related deaths, annual drug-trends report says
Kim Blakeley

Heroin deaths in the Seattle-King County area rose 58 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to an annual report published today by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

“The increase in drug deaths in 2014, particularly heroin, is quite distressing,” said Caleb Banta-Green, senior research scientist and the report’s lead author. “The county has expanded access to lifesaving measures, including opioid drug treatment, and is distributing the opiate overdose antidote naloxone, but it appears that heroin use and related mortality are outpacing these efforts.” 

UW School of Public Health
"If more people take action, we can decrease deaths,” said Caleb Banta-Green, the report's lead author.
"If more people take action, we can decrease deaths,” said Caleb Banta-Green, the report's lead author.

The drug-abuse trends report notes that heroin deaths were up across all age groups. Historically, many heroin deaths have involved cocaine, and this continues to be the case. However, over the past three years, many more deaths have involved heroin and methamphetamine.

“We need the entire community to know that we have a serious drug problem that affects people across our county, that more can be done, and that they can be part of the solution,” Banta-Green said. “Learn how to recognize an opiate overdose and use the overdose-reversal medicine. Call 9-1-1 for help if you see an overdose. Learn about treatment options. If more people take action, we can decrease deaths.”

The report was developed by experts from county, state and federal agencies, as well as staff from local health and social service agencies.
Death from opiates in King County in 2014:

  • Heroin-involved deaths totaled 156, a 58% increase from 99 in 2013.
  • Heroin deaths involving no other drugs are most common among young adults.
  • Prescription-type opiate-involved deaths have decreased from a peak of 164 in 2009 to 98 in 2014. 

“The good news is that many opiate overdoses, heroin or pharmaceutical, can be reversed before a person dies,” said Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County. “There are many locations where people can obtain naloxone, also known as Narcan, an antidote that quickly and safely reverses opioid overdoses. The website has a directory of those locations. Through the downtown syringe exchange, we’ve distributed 926 kits and have had 224 reversals reported to us, which shows lives can be saved if friends and families of drug users obtain naloxone and learn how to use it.”
Treatment admissions for King County residents who received public funding:

  • Doubled from 2010 to 2014 for heroin
  • Increased 30% for methamphetamine
  • Declined 27% for prescription-type opiates
  • Declined 32% for marijuana 

The overdose antidote Narcan is available for free at multiple area locations, said Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County.
picture of Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health-Seattle & King County.

Approximately 40% of patients admitted to treatment programs for heroin or prescription-type opiates were ages 18-29 in 2014, representing a much younger age group than a decade ago.

Over the past five years, methamphetamine-treatment admissions are up across King County and across ethnicities. 2014 saw the record high number of treatment admissions for methamphetamine, slightly higher than the previous peak in 2006-2007. 

“Opioid addiction is a chronic, relapsing health condition. We want to be able to provide all appropriate forms of care in King County for those in need. The best available treatment outcomes come from medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine,” said Brad Finegood with King County’s Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division.

“We expanded methadone treatment capacity by 400 slots in 2014 and continue to expand it in 2015," he said. "We are working to open another medication assisted treatment clinic in south King County, where the data shows we have an unmet need. We also need to get more prescribers willing to treat addiction with buprenorphine, and we are working with the state to improve reimbursement rates. We need people who are addicted and their family members to continue to be open-minded about the options available for drug treatment. Untreated opiate addiction can be deadly.”
Mental illness and drug use

  • Among those admitted to drug treatment, approximately one-third were determined to have serious mental health issues.
  • Among people who died of drug-overdose, approximately 20% had an antidepressant detected in their body -- indicating that the decedent had a serious mental health condition and that they had seen a healthcare provider in the recent past.
  • Mental health and substance abuse commonly overlap and exacerbate one another. 

Good Samaritan overdose law
King County Sheriff John Urquhart asks people who see an overdose to call 9-1-1.

"Law enforcement wants to help in these emergency situations. It’s also important for friends, families and loved ones of those who consume opiates to become familiar with naloxone which, when used properly, can usually stop an opiate overdose," Urquhart said.

In a medical emergency like a drug overdose, saving a life is paramount, said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. "Neither the overdose victim nor the people trying to help the victim will find themselves in trouble with the law for illegal drug possession."