Opioid deaths at an all-time high in Alaska, across the country

Syringe and Opioid Medications, Photo Date: 7/14/2017 / Photo: USDA / (MGN)
Syringe and Opioid Medications, Photo Date: 7/14/2017 / Photo: USDA / (MGN)
Published: Aug. 16, 2018 at 12:44 PM AKDT
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There are a startling number of people dying from drug overdoses.

The latest Centers for Disease Control estimates that a record 71,568 Americans are estimated to have died of drug overdoses in 2017.

In Alaska, in 2017, there were 108 deaths from all opioids. Eight of those deaths were from suicides involving opioids, according to Dr. Jay Butler, the state's chief medical officer.

"The national trends really are what we're seeing in Alaska," Dr. Butler said. "There are some ongoing increases, but it's being driven by two new phenomenon — one being the influx of fentanyl and the related synthetic opioids, but also the combination of multiple drugs at once that may increase the risk of a fatality for a user."

According to a report from the state Department of Health and Social Services, there were 55 deaths caused by opioids in 2010, and 96 in 2016 — a 43 percent increase.

"We've seen some decline in heroin overdose deaths, but unfortunately we've seen a fairly dramatic increase in fentanyl overdoses," Butler said.

The State of Alaska reports that synthetic opioids, excluding methadone, caused 37 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in 2017, with fentanyl contributing to 76 percent of the synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

Despite the escalating rate of opioid overdose deaths and high hospitalization rates, the data shows that the percentage of high school students who self-report using heroin at least once dropped in 2011 and 2013 and has not increased since.

President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, opening up money for states to use to combat the problem.

In parts of New England — Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island — the number of overdoses has begun to fall. Each of those states have had major public health campaigns and increased addiction treatment.

Butler says Alaska is also making strides to stop the increase, but stresses that much more work needs to be done.

"While I see some encouraging trends, there is a lot of work left to do, and I think part of our efforts going forward include recognizing we don't have just an opioid problem, we have an addiction problem," Butler said. "And if we focus entirely on opioids, then five years from now we're gong to be talking about the problem we have with other drugs. So we need to take a more holistic approach that includes addressing the supply and demand issue related to a number of types of drugs of abuse."