There were 1,014 accidental drug overdoses in North Carolina in 2012, according to the North Carolina Injury Violence and Prevention Branch.
Of those deaths, 565 were from prescription opioid painkillers.
In Orange County, prescription pain medication, specifically opioids, cause about 10 unintentional poisoning deaths every year.
The increased access and use of prescription pain medication sparked this trend, said Dr. Lisa Waddell , chief program officer for community health and prevention for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
“At one time, people were using illegal drugs a lot, like heroin, and then those drugs became more expensive, so they looked for similar drugs,” Waddell said. “People found another legal form in prescription medication.”
The Orange County Health Department has made drug overdose prevention its top priority this year, said Meredith Stewart , senior public health educator for the department.
“Last year, we did door-to-door surveys to see what the community’s priorities were, and we saw that substance abuse was seen as a top issue,” she said.
The biggest risk comes when people think an overdose can’t happen to them.
“We see elderly patients who are overdosing by accident, we see young people overdosing who are just experimenting with drugs and take too many, we see middle aged people who use it for pain,” said Tessie Castillo , spokeswoman for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, which provides overdose prevention training. “It’s rich people, it’s poor people, it’s everybody.”
Naloxone, also a prescription medication, can be used to help a person who overdoses on pain medication.
“Naloxone blocks the effects of the opiate in the brain, and it reverses the overdose,” Castillo said.
The medication is intended to prevent imminent death.
“It’s like when you get a snake bite, so you go to the hospital and get the antidote,” Waddell said. “Naloxone is the antidote.”
Though naloxone has always been available by prescription, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the 911 Good Samaritan law last year, which allows community groups, like the Harm Reduction Coalition, to distribute it.
“When someone overdoes on opioids, they become unresponsive so they can’t give naloxone to themselves,” Stewart said. “That’s why it’s so important for family and friends to be able to have access to naloxone.”
Since August, the Harm Reduction Coalition distributed 1,409 kits containing naloxone and received reports of 53 successful overdose reversals. No unsuccessful reversals were reported.
Stewart said it’s also important to prevent prescription medications from getting into unsafe hands.
Healthy Carolinians of Orange County, a network of agencies and citizens partnering to promote health and wellness in Orange County, created drug drop boxes at various municipal police stations where people can dispose of used or unused medications.
“This way they are disposed properly and not sitting around for someone else to use,” Stewart said.
Waddell said communities must adopt new policies and continue educating residents.
“The policy changes could be around what type of providers can provide this sort of treatment measure or around management changes.”
Stewart said North Carolina uses the Controlled Substances Reporting System, which was created to improve the state’s ability to monitor people using and possibly misusing prescription medication.
“When pharmacists dispense a prescription, it gets logged into that system so physicians and other authorized providers can look in the system and see how many prescriptions a person has gotten,” Stewart said. “We can look at a specific physician and their prescribing practicing.”
She said residents need to realize that drug overdose isn’t a private problem.
“Substance abuse doesn’t affect just the person, it affects the community,” Stewart said. “It’s not an individual problem, it’s the community’s problem.”