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Heroin-related deaths on the rise in Ohio

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For the past several years, police officers and lawmakers have been fighting a desperate battle against drugs in Athens County and across Ohio, and new information released by the Ohio Department of Health shows that the state is losing that battle.

The data showed that 680 Ohioans died from heroin-related overdoses in 2012, a record number that is up 37 percent from the 2011 death total of 426. In 2012, the numbers pushed drug-related death total for the year to 1,272, up from 1,154 the previous year. Fatal drug overdose has been the leading cause of accidental death within the state since 2007.

Athens County, though not the location of a major city, has one of the highest rates of drug overdose in the state. Out of every 100,000 people, 15.5 within the county will die due to a drug overdose, a problem that is shared by several other counties in the southern part of the state.

“Heroin use has increased exponentially,” said James Gaskell, the health commissioner at the Athens City-County Health Department. “We are treating many more people than we were five years ago.”

Twelve people died due to overdose in Athens County in 2012, and a total of 77 have died in the five-year period between 2007 and 2012.

The number of heroin related deaths has risen exponentially, while the overdose death rate has increased only slightly because heroin has taken the place of other drugs, namely prescription opioids.

“Prescription opioid addiction was incredibly common about a decade ago, but the prescription opioids became increasingly expensive and harder to obtain.” Gaskell said.

Numerous programs are being run across the state to reduce the abuse of prescription drugs, such as a program that monitors where and how many prescription drugs a patient buys or a law that limited the number of pills-on-demand clinics. The decrease in opioid deaths seem to suggest this is working, but the state government and law enforcement officials in the various counties will have to think of a new method to combat heroin.

“This problem is difficult to treat because you need cultural changes and those don’t happen quickly,” Gaskell said. “The use of opioids has grown exponentially, and recognition of the problem is the first step. These drugs are highly addictive, and it becomes a community problem because those who are addicted will rob and steal to support their addiction.”

Attorney General Mike DeWine has declared the increase in heroin deaths an “epidemic” and has launched a statewide investigation to seek out heroin dealers and put an end to their practices. However, James Gaskell believes it will take more than that to truly do away with the state’s drug problem.

“Educating citizens about the dangers of the drug is part of the answer, as is the legal system’s prevention of sale. People need to realize how big of an issue this is (to the state), and the more aware of the problems people are, the more likely people will be determined to decrease usage and help more people to seek therapy.”

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