In 2015, seventy four people in Jefferson county died from prescription opioid overdoses, compared to 32 in 2014. The main culprit is fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid painkiller. More than half of the 74 killed by prescription opioids last year had taken fentanyl, much of which area doctors and law enforcement believe was obtained illegally.
The coroner’s report shows deaths from heroin overdose decreased by 29 percent, with 97 deaths in 2015 compared to 138 in 2014. But that might not be cause for celebration. In some cases, heroin and fentanyl were both present in a person’s system.
“This may be because the decedent was using both fentanyl and heroin, or it may be that fentanyl is replacing heroin in part or in whole in a dose purchased illicitly,” the report says.
“Fentanyl is a powerful … deadly drug,” says Joyce Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. “Dealers are now using it to cut with heroin to increase their sales.” She says fentanyl has become a major problem around Birmingham, starting in the second half of 2015.
Stefan G. Kertesz, MD of UAB’s School of Medicine, says that while fentanyl is a prescription drug, the vast majority of fentanyl involved in these deaths was probably not legally prescribed by doctors.
“When someone dies from fentanyl, most of which is being made illegally in drug dealer labs and sold on the street, the public reports call that a ‘prescription opioid death’, even though there were no prescriptions and no doctors involved at all,” says Kertesz. “Of course, doctors do prescribe some fentanyl, but very little. All opioid prescribing is going down quickly.”
Besides fentanyl, there was a decrease in deaths caused by all other prescription opioid drugs.
Overall, deaths from illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine were down last year by 30 percent in Jefferson County. In 2014, 191 people died of illegal drug overdoses, compared to 133 overdose deaths last year.
The largest decrease was in deaths due to methamphetamine, which were down 70 percent. Five people died of methamphetamine overdose in 2015, while the coroner reports 17 the previous year.
Another notable trend was a 50 percent rise in a alcohol deaths. Last year, 27 peoples’ primary cause of death was alcohol, compared to 17 in 2014.
The coroner’s office reports white males in their 30s were most likely to die from drug overdoses “across all categories with the exception of prescription medication and ethanol (alcohol).” In those instances, white males in their 50’s were most susceptible.
You can review the entire Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner’s Office 2015 Annual Drug Report below.
Photo by Jonathan Silverberg