Alaska opioid deaths increased by 77 percent in last decade, report says

The rate of Alaskans who died from opioid overdoses increased 77 percent over the last decade, with the highest overall rate of deaths reported in the last year, according to a report issued this week by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

The Health Impacts of Opioid Misuse in Alaska report found that 623 people died from opioid overdoses between 2010 and 2017, with a 661 total opioid-related deaths.

The highest rate of opioid-related death was reported in 2017 — with 108 total deaths and 100 overdose deaths. In 2010, 55 people died from opioid overdoses.

Opioids, which dampen pain receptors and increase pleasure by releasing dopamine into the body, were involved in more than 42,000 U.S. deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those deaths, 40 percent involved a prescription drug, the CDC reports.

Released last Wednesday, the DHSS report looked the use of heroin, natural or semi-synthetic opioids — such as morphine, codeine, hydromorphone, oxycodone and hydrocone — and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, carfentanil, tramadol, propoxyphene and mepederine. Methadone was included in its own category.

While overall rates of death from opioid overdose increased significantly between 2010 and 2017, rates per drug category varied.

Natural and synthetic opioid overdose death rates increased 38 percent during that eight-year period. Between 2011 and 2016, heroin overdose death rates, which were too small to be reliably reported in 2010, increased four fold — from 1.4 to 6.5 per 100,000 people. In 2017, however, heroin overdose rates decreased by 25 percent. Inversely, synthetic opioid overdose deaths increased from 2016 to 2017 by three fold, rising from 1.1 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 4.9 in 2017.

Geographically, the Anchorage Region showed the highest rates of opioid overdose death, rising from 12.5 people per 100,000 in 2010 to 20.4 people in 2017. The Gulf Coast Region, made up of the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Kodiak Island Borough and Valdez-Cordova Census Area, showed a decrease in the rates of opioid overdose deaths between 2010 and 2017 — from 11.4 percent to 10 percent. Overall, however, the Gulf Coast region came in third in total overdose deaths between that period, with 60 people dying from overdose. In Anchorage, 211 people died; 61 died in the Mat-Su Region.

Medical care for opioid-related issues also increased in recent years. Between 2016 and 2017, the rate of opioid-related emergency discharges increased 22 percent. Opioid-related hospitalizations rates by region were highest in the Gulf Coast, followed by Anchorage, Mat-Su and Northern regions.

In 2016-2017, total inpatient charges for opioid-related hospitalizations was more than $23 million. The median charge for opioid-related inpatient hospitalizations was $36,228.

Reach Erin Thompson at ethompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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