- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 17, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday, further spotlighting Appalachia’s festering drug abuse problem that is also fueling a rise in hepatitis C in one of the nation’s poorest regions.

There were about 34 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 West Virginia residents from 2011-13, up dramatically from 22 deaths per 100,000 people in 2007-09, according to the report released Wednesday by the nonprofit groups Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate was more than double the national average, the report says. Citing statistics from the CDC, it found that West Virginia’s rate far surpasses the second-highest state, New Mexico, which was at 28.2 deaths per 100,000. The national average was 13.4.

“It’s more than disappointing. It’s devastating,” said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in Charleston. “Can I say that I’m shocked? I’m not, because I know the depth of this problem.”

The reasons why vary, but they are intertwined, said Dr. Rahul Gupta, West Virginia’s state health officer.

He cited the impoverished region’s history of poor education, along with the isolation of people and communities in its rugged mountainous terrain. There’s a limited offering of substance abuse programs, though it’s growing, but services may be far away and hard to reach.

Those factors similarly drive West Virginia toward the bottom of many other health and quality of life indicators, Gupta said.

“Whether it’s drug use, whether it’s mental health, it’s physical health, a number of those things are going hand-in-hand,” Gupta said.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that hepatitis C cases across four Appalachian states - Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia - more than tripled between 2006 and 2012. Kentucky now has the nation’s highest rate of acute hepatitis C.

The recent outbreak of hepatitis C, which can be transmitted by injecting drugs or having unprotected sex, is centered in rural areas among young, white drug users.

Gupta said West Virginia has seen 3,000 drug overdose deaths in the last five years, or an average of 600 a year.

In Cabell County alone this year, there were at least 32 overdose deaths and 360 drug overdoses, including heroin and prescription drugs, said Jim Johnson, the city of Huntington’s director of drug control policy.

While police have tried to cut down on the supply side of illegal drugs with at least 406 drug-related arrests in Huntington this year, leaders in the Ohio River county of 97,000 residents have also have turned to addiction treatment programs.

“The drug problem is our No. 1 problem,” Johnson said. “We’re a community that’s hitting it head on. We’re not trying to sweep it under the table. We’re trying to be aggressive.

West Virginia’s drug woes reflect a national trend.

The report said drug overdose deaths have more than doubled in the past 14 years nationally and have resulted in 44,000 deaths per year, half of which are prescription-drug related. Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of injury in 36 states, including West Virginia, surpassing motor vehicle-related deaths.

In West Virginia, two state agencies have an ongoing lawsuit seeking to unseal court records about drug shipments from 11 pharmaceutical distributors. The suit alleges the companies have helped fuel the state’s pain pill epidemic by shipping excessive amounts of prescription painkillers to southern West Virginia pharmacies.

Authorities also have cracked down on doctors who run pill mills. A Clarksburg pain doctor was sentenced last month to five years in prison. A 2010 FBI raid shut down a Williamson clinic and resulted in six month prison sentences for two physicians and an office manager for misusing Drug Enforcement Administration registration numbers.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other senators have asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to reinstate a national program where people can turn in expired and unwanted prescription pills to police agencies on designated days. Manchin also wants to reclassify certain prescription drugs to limit the amount and frequency that can be dispensed without a person being rechecked by a physician.

“It’s a whole gamut of things that we have to start,” Manchin said. “But if we don’t start, and we don’t have a systematic way of approaching it, this is going to continue to consume our nation at a price we can’t afford to pay.”


Associated Press writer Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this story.

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