COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Government doctors who study disease are helping Ohio find solutions to a wave of overdose deaths caused by a powerful painkiller mixed with heroin.
Experts in epidemiology and behavior with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plan to arrive in the state Monday at the request of the Department of Health and could be in Ohio for several weeks. The six-person team will study deaths related to the painkiller fentanyl, which has flooded the state in recent years.
“It really just gives a different set of eyes to look at the issue that will help us as we are looking to develop prevention activities here in our state,” Dr. Mary DiOrio, the Health Department’s medical director, told The Associated Press.
Ohio experienced 502 fentanyl-related deaths last year, up from 84 the year before. The drug is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Addicts often don’t know their heroin has been laced with fentanyl.
As a prescription, fentanyl is used to treat people with chronic pain such as end-stage cancer patients. Authorities believe the fentanyl hitting the heroin market is being manufactured for the illegal drug trade.
In all, 2,482 people in Ohio died from accidental overdoses in 2014, an 18 percent increase over the previous year.
The CDC will compare victims of fentanyl overdoses with people who died from painkillers and heroin and figure out what puts people at risk for fentanyl overdoses and how to prevent them. The agency also will recommend strategies to Ohio to prevent future fentanyl-related deaths, said CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard.
In Portsmouth in southern Ohio, Jessica Slener and her boyfriend, Caleb Gammon, are in recovery through a program run by SOLACE, a state-certified treatment program which spearheads a variety of treatment and prevention efforts. Portsmouth and surrounding Scioto County have been hit hard by painkiller and heroin addictions.
Both Slener and Gammon were heroin addicts familiar with fentanyl. Slener, 29, knows people who died of overdoses when they didn’t know the drug was added to their heroin. She once fell asleep at a Columbus bus stop after taking fentanyl-laced heroin without realizing it.
Both now attend regular counseling sessions and group meetings, are drug tested and take suboxone, a drug that blocks cravings for heroin and painkillers.
Treatment facilities are crucial to overcoming heroin addiction, said Gammon, 31, who spent two years in prison on drug-related charges.
“Because you can’t ever wrap your mind around how bad it will take control of you,” he said.
In Marion, “blue drop” heroin laced with fentanyl caused 59 overdoses and five deaths between March and early June when arrests and confiscation ended the epidemic. Many addicts survived because of the use of naloxone, an overdose antidote.
In Columbus in May, a baby and a toddler died in unrelated incidents when they accidentally ingested fentanyl-laced heroin. Parents face involuntary manslaughter and child endangering charges in both cases.
Elsewhere, New Jersey saw a huge spike in fentanyl deaths in 2014, reporting as many as 80 in the first six months of the fiscal year, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And in a 15-month period, about 200 deaths were reported in Pennsylvania related to fentanyl, the DEA said.
The CDC team plan visits to health centers in Cuyahoga, Hamilton and Montgomery counties and the city of Portsmouth.
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