Preliminary data from the state health department suggests the number of opioid-related deaths in 2018 has dropped from the previous year.
The number of deaths involving opioids in 2018 fell 35 percent from the same time period in 2017, according to preliminary 2018 data from the Bureau of Health Statistics and released by the Iowa Department of Public Health Wednesday.
From January to August 2018, 89 opioid-related deaths occurred.
In 2017, between January and August 137 such deaths were recorded. In total, there were 206 deaths in 2017.
Kevin Gabbert, Department of Public Health opioid initiatives director, said officials were surprised by the figures, especially given that there was a 14 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. A 35 percent drop “is a significant swing,” he said.
“Nationally, we’re seeing it plateau as far as number of deaths related to opioids, but not as much information is out there regarding to states actually experiencing a reduction,” he said.
However, Gabbert cautioned that trend could change between now and the end of the year.
“The thing is this is preliminary data. We won’t have actual data until at least three to six months after the start of 2019,” Gabbert said.
WHY THE REDUCTION?
Several factors could be contributing to the decline, Gabbert said, including community efforts such as the Cedar Rapids-based Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition not-for-profit or the state’s Prescription Monitoring Program, which checks on controlled substance prescriptions.
In 2016, state lawmakers passed legislation to expand access to the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone and the IDPH state medical director issued a standing order for participating pharmacies to make the drug available for Iowans without a prescription — moves that Gabbert also pointed to as contributing factors.
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To Gabbert, the data shows the importance of staying ahead of the national opioid overdose epidemic, which saw more than 72,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“At times, there’s been criticism on how much focus we’ve been placing on opioids and reducing the number of overdose deaths because we’re not experiencing the same issues as West Virginia or Ohio,” Gabbert said.
“We’ve taken a prevention approach. We feel very strongly we would like to be ahead of the issue rather than chasing the issue.”
But Gabbert said the department would like to see continued movement, including expanded access to medication assisted treatment, which combines behavioral therapy and medications to treat substance use disorders.
In 2015, only 31 providers offered medicated assisted treatment, Gabbert said. As of last week, there were 109 statewide.
Officials from Department of Public Health hope to see that number continue to increase.
“The more prescribers we can get on board, the better off our state’s going to be,” he said.
DATA IN REAL TIME
According to the federal CDC, opioid-related overdose deaths in Iowa has increased steadily from 2000, when there were 23 total deaths.
In 2017, there were 206 total opioid-related deaths, and 180 total in 2016.
On July 1, the Department of Public Health implemented a requirement for Iowa hospitals to report the number of opioid overdoses — which does not always result in death — they treat in their emergency department.
Since July 1, Gabbert said 395 suspected and confirmed overdoses in hospital emergency rooms were recorded.
“That number surprised us,” Gabbert said.
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Hospitals are required to report an incident within three days, allowing the state public health department to see the overdose rate more or less in real time.
“Before would have to wait four to six months after the previous year to find out what we had for actual overdoses,” Gabbert said. “That doesn’t do us any good if we’re trying to target interventions and us a prevention approach.”
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