West Virginia ranks first in drug overdose deaths

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It’s an epidemic that’s sweeping the nation, but one that’s hit hardest here at home. The Trust for America’s Health released a report earlier this week that found West Virginia has the highest drug overdose rate in the country.

“The lowest, to put it in perspective, is North Dakota. They come in at 3.4 per 100,000 overdoses compared to 28.9 [in West Virginia]. That’s pretty striking,” said Rich Hamburg, the Deputy Director of the Trust for America’s Health.

He says that’s not even the worst news.

“Not only is it the highest in the country, it has quadrupled over the last ten years,” stressed the deputy director.

What’s the reasoning behind the exploding prescription drug abuse problem here in West Virginia? Hamburg said it all come down to access.

“We see particularly high rates of sales of Oxycontin in coal mining areas, West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, which tend to be places with high concentrations of people with back problems and other chronic pain,” explained Hamburg. “We see higher rates in areas of more poverty. We see higher rates in more rural areas.”

All of those pretty much describe most of West Virginia. In fact, more people die of a drug overdose in West Virginia than those killed in auto accidents. The drugs of choice tend to be Oxycontin, hydrocodone, Vicodin, Xanax and Ritalin.

“If there’s more medication out there, there’s going to be more abuse of those medications,” according to Hamburg.

The report looked at the glut of prescription drugs showing up on the street. Hamburg said much of the time those drugs were prescribed through legal channels, like a family doctor, or through iffy practices, such as purchasing them on the Internet. But according to the study, the majority of abusers are not the ones who were prescribed those drugs in the first place.

“Fifty-five percent of those who have had prescription drug abuse [problems] have received them from friends and family,” explained Hamburg. “So we are talking about just going to your parents’ bathroom and grabbing a handful of pills that they might have forgotten about.”

Hamburg stressed there is no silver bullet to put a stop to prescription drug abuse but there are ways to help curb it. Hamburg said West Virginia’s prescription drug monitoring program is making a difference. But he believes the real healing begins with education, responsible prescribing practices, safe storage of prescriptions and, most importantly, treatment.

“We need to make sure more people are receiving health care and health care that has behavioral and mental health treatment ,” said Hamburg.

You can read more about the study at www.healthyamericans.org.

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