There has been a surge in the use of opioid drug— heroin and prescription painkillers— in the United States, and this rise in popularity has some calling it an “epidemic.” Here in Orange County, public health officials say there is a growing problem with opioid abuse and subsequent overdoses.

The increase in heroin use across the country is interconnected with an expanding opioid market, driven by the high demand for prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin and hydrocodone. As a general class of drugs, opioids have a high potential for abuse.

“We have seen here in Orange County an increase in unintentional poisoning overdose deaths. That has been almost entirely due to prescription opioid overdose, not to heroin overdose,” said Meredith Stewart, the Board of Health Strategic Planning Director for the Orange County Health Department.

In 2009-2012, Stewart said the Health Department recorded an average of 10 opioid overdose deaths per year in Orange County. That’s compared to decade ago when there were about six deaths per year.

Across North Carolina, there has been a more than 300 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths since 1999, according to the state Center for Health Statistics.

“We consider that each one of these deaths is preventable, and that’s why we are taking a community approach to this,” Stewart said.

The Overdose Antidote 

Part of that approach is the use of the medication, naloxone, which can quickly reverse an overdose caused by opioid medications and even heroin.

This was possible due to a state law passed in 2013 that gave doctors the ability to prescribe naloxone to a person at risk of opioid overdose, as well as that person’s friends and family members. The “good Samaritan” law also grants people immunity from criminal prosecution for possessing small amounts of heroin if they are seeking assistance for a drug-related overdose.

The person who holds the prescription can then administer it to someone experiencing an opioid overdose.

In December of last year, Orange County became the first health department in the state to offer naloxone.

“Naloxone is just one piece of a larger effort to address substance abuse and misuse, particularly with prescription and other opioids,” she said.

Other Measures

Stewart said the Orange County Health Department is also working to develop better systems to track prescriptions issued for painkillers.

Additionally, in a partnership with Healthy  Carolinians of Orange County (HCOC), the Health Department worked with area law enforcement to set up drug drop boxes, located at police department headquarters, where people can drop off their unused or unwanted medications.