- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 18, 2007

ROANOKE (AP) — Drug overdoses killed more people in western Virginia last year than homicides, alcohol-related vehicle crashes and house fires combined, according to the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The region had 264 fatal drug overdoses in 2006 — up 22 percent from 2005 and nearly four times more than a decade ago. Most of the deaths resulted from prescription-drug abuse in rural far Southwest Virginia, according to the state figures.

“This is a public health epidemic,” said Dr. Martha Wunsch of Blacksburg, an addiction specialist who is studying the problem through a research grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Abuse of the painkiller OxyContin reached crisis levels in 2001, and the number of fatal overdoses leveled off from 2003 to 2005 after a prescription-monitoring program was expanded to cover the entire state and federal prosecution ended misleading OxyContin marketing.

But the spike in drug deaths last year might show that things are getting worse, said Richard Stallard, head of the Southwest Virginia Drug Task Force, which covers Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise counties in the state’s westernmost tip.

“Back in the heyday of OxyContin, it had really gotten bad,” Mr. Stallard said. “But right now, it is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

As the region’s population is remaining flat or declining, it is not clear why the epidemic hasn’t leveled off the way crack cocaine did in many cities.

The 264 drug overdoses in western Virginia accounted for 40 percent of Virginia’s total drug-overdose deaths, even though the area contains just 20 percent of the state’s population. Prescription drugs were responsible for more than 200 of the 264 deaths in the region, which stretches from Harrisonburg to Martinsville and all the way west to Lee County.

Far Southwest Virginia, with its high rate of disability and injuries because of hard-labor industries such as coal mining, has long been a hotbed for prescription-drug abuse.

A detailed breakdown of drug deaths by county was not available for last year. But according to a 2005 report from the medical examiner, the counties of far Southwest — including Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell and Tazewell — had per-capita rates of drug deaths that ranged from 34 to 44 fatalities per 100,000 residents.

The statewide rate was seven deaths per 100,000.

Methadone was the region’s most deadly drug last year, causing 78 overdoses. Virtually all of those cases stemmed from the pill form used as an analgesic, according to Dr. Wunsch’s research.

Dr. Wunsch, a professor of addiction studies at the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the preliminary results of her research show two distinct groups of victims: young people who generally lack prescriptions for pain medication they use as a party drug and an older population more likely to be suffering from chronic pain and depression.

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