Opioid-related deaths in Mecklenburg County are climbing. Efforts are underway to prevent them

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Opioid-related deaths are on the rise nationwide, and Mecklenburg County isn’t immune.

In the last decade, opioid-related deaths in the county have increased by 134 percent — from 26 in 2005 to 61 in 2015. Hospital visits related to opioid overdoses have risen as well.

Here’s an explanation of how we got to this point and how Mecklenburg County officials are working to combat the problem.

Where did the opioid crisis come from?

The uptick in opioid addictions began in the 1990s, when pain was recognized as the fifth vital sign, said Connie Mele, the Mecklenburg County assistant public health director. (Pain is checked when nurses ask patients to rate it on a scale of 1-10).

Mele, who has worked in the field of addiction for more than 30 years, said the new classification wasn’t necessarily a bad thing — chronic pain wasn’t being effectively treated before. But, she said, the change in mindset led to more prescriptions for opioids, which are powerful, but highly addictive, pain relievers.

From 1999 to 2014, national sales of prescription opiates almost quadrupled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How bad has it gotten here?

In Mecklenburg County, opioid addictions exist across all socioeconomic classes. In 2015, 61 people died from opioid overdoses, the second-highest in the state after Wake County, which had 62 deaths.

Looking at the data, it’s clear that opioid-related deaths in Mecklenburg County have been rising fairly consistently since 1999. But when the size of the population is accounted for, rural counties far exceeded the opioid-related death rates urban counties saw.

Courtesy of Mecklenburg County Gov.

The number of emergency room visits for opioid overdoses has also increased in the last five years. In 2016, there was an almost 30 percent increase from the year before — up to 340 from 263.

Graph courtesy of Mecklenburg County Gov.

But this data may not tell the whole story. Mele said information wasn’t collected from emergency rooms in specialty hospitals, so the numbers could potentially be higher.

What’s being done to treat and prevent opioid addiction?

Mele emphasized the variety of treatments a person dealing with addiction can receive — there’s no “one size fits all” option. She also said there’s no judgment if a person relapses and needs to receive treatment again.

“Substance use disorders are brain diseases, just like high blood pressure is a disease,” she said. “It needs to be treated in the same way.”

To prevent deaths from opioid overdoses, Mecklenburg County EMS paramedics and firefighters carry Narcan, a brand of the anti-overdose medication naloxone, which is administered as a nasal spray.

Lester Oliva, who has worked as a paramedic in Mecklenburg County for six years, said it often takes multiple doses of Narcan for a person experiencing an overdose to regain consciousness.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officers don’t usually carry Narcan in patrol vehicles, largely because the county’s Medic system is so efficient. But Lt. Travis Pardue of CMPD said that could change in the future. Pardue has been with CMPD for 22 years, and he said concern about opioid use, specifically heroin use, has grown over the years.

As those concerns increase, state and local officials have passed laws and implemented initiatives to curb the number of opioid-related deaths.

In May, the state public health director signed an order allowing pharmacies to carry Naloxone products. The drug is currently available over-the-counter at 165 pharmacies in Mecklenburg County.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed the STOP Act (Strengthen Opioid misuse Prevention Act) into law in June, which aims to change the way opioids are prescribed by doctors. One of the provisions of the STOP Act is that providers of controlled substances, like opioids, must report each prescription. That way, doctors can see when an opioid was last prescribed to a patient.

In 2013, a substance abuse disorder task force was created in Mecklenburg County after a community health assessment found that substance abuse problems ranked fifth on the list of community concerns.

The task force has worked to raise public awareness for opioid addictions, and educate the public about how to safely discard or keep prescription medications.

Cover photo Medic via Facebook

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