Columbus -- The number of unintentional drug overdoses continued to rise in the state in 2015, according to new statistics released by the Ohio Department of Health Aug. 25.
A record 3,050 Ohio residents died as a result of overdoses last year, up from 2,531 in 2014 and 2,110 in 2013. The number has risen every year since 2009; since 2010, nearly 13,000 Ohioans have died from unintentional drug overdoses.
Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic narcotic that users are mixing with heroin, was a big driver of the increase, accounting for 1,155 unintentional overdose deaths last year, up from 503 in 2014 and 84 in '13. Fentanyl-related deaths were mostly in the single digits during the previous half a dozen years.
"Ohio was one of the first states to see the rise of fentanyl over the past couple of years, as the opiate epidemic continues to evolve to more powerful drugs," Mark Hurst, medical director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services said in a released statement. "We knew when we started this battle five years ago that progress wouldn't be easy, but we are well prepared to stay on the leading edge of fighting this epidemic thanks to the multi-faceted strategies we have put into place."
Heroin was the second-biggest driver of Ohio's results, accounting for 1,424 unintentional overdose deaths in 2015, up from 1,196 in 2014 and 983 in '13.
Fentanyl is used in anesthesia to treat patients in extreme pain or to manage pain after surgeries. Health officials estimate that it is 30-50 times more potent than heroin.
State lawmakers have proposed law changes to address the fentanyl issue. SB 237, for example, would increase criminal penalties for the possession or sale of the drug.
On the positive side, state efforts have reduced the number of prescription painkillers distributed to residents, and the number of related overdose deaths has remained relatively level -- 667 unintentional deaths were linked to prescription opioids last year, down from 672 in 2014.
"In the midst of this growing opiate epidemic, we are seeing positive indications that our aggressive efforts are working to reduce opioid prescription pain medications available for abuse," state Medical Director Mary DiOrio said in a released statement. "There were 81 million fewer opioid doses dispensed to Ohio patients since the state took initiatives to curb opiates, and the number of people who try to get controlled substances from multiple doctors has dramatically decreased. Also, the percentage of prescription opioid-related deaths compared to all unintentional overdose deaths declined in Ohio for the fourth straight year."
Additionally, emergency responders and law enforcement also have increased their use of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, saving Ohioans' lives in the process.
According to health officials, emergency personnel administered 19,782 doses of the drug last year, 7,207 more than were administered two years prior.
"The state has been very aggressive in implementing new strategies to strengthen Ohio's fight against opiates, but we are reminded today of the difficult road ahead as the epidemic evolves at a rapid pace," Andrea Boxill, deputy director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said in a released statement. "In the face of the continued rise in drug overdoses, we believe that Ohio has one of the most comprehensive approaches in the nation to combatting opiate abuse and drug overdoses, and we will continue to evolve our efforts to address the changes that we are seeing in the drug market."
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief.