The national statistics in the drug-overdose epidemic are staggering. In a mid-size city like Fort Wayne, in an area surrounded by rural counties, it’s perhaps tempting to think of this as somebody else’s problem.
It is not.
The results of a study of 287 deaths over six years presented to the Allen County Board of Health Monday brought it all back home. Full of surprising numbers, the report overall was a clarion call for action here.
In many ways, the drug-overdose problem in this area mirrors state and national statistics. But the estimated death rate for 2013 in Allen County was 17.1 per 100,000 residents – higher than the national average of 13.1 and the Indiana average of 14.9.
In fact, if the preliminary figures prove accurate, the number of overdose deaths and deaths from traffic accidents here were equal last year. Three-quarters of those who died of an overdose had ingested more than one type of restricted or illegal drug – four, on average – and in the majority of the prescription-drug deaths, the victim was not the person who was prescribed the drug.
This suggests that drugs such as painkillers are being overprescribed and that the overabundance of drugs leads to their becoming more accessible to others. Patients who are given opioids for pain control could help prevent overdose deaths simply by keeping those drugs out of the hands of others.
Although the most likely overdose victim is a white, middle-aged male, those involved in the study have special concerns about teens. Teen overdose deaths are almost always accidents, the study showed.
Young people who may have mental health issues are self-medicating with stimulants, opioids and heroin, said Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan. “When you look at the stats from our young people and heroin, it’s staggering; they’re snorting it, so they think they’re not junkies.”
Overcoming the drug-overdose epidemic requires many people pursuing many solutions. By illuminating the dimensions of the problem, this local research is a step forward in itself. A state task force has been addressing the problem of overprescription of painkillers, but there is much more to be done, including cutting off the availability of heroin, which some turn to as an alternative to "legitimate" opioids, expanding counseling and treatment for addictions and addressing mental health issues, particularly among the young.