A sudden spike in heroin overdoses was reported in Montgomery County, Kentucky, on Wednesday. The surge in overdoses came shortly after similar outbreaks in cities neighboring Kentucky, in Ohio and West Virginia.
The number of overdoses in the Kentucky county rose to 18 in one day, and one of the victims has died. The proximity to mass heroin overdose reports in nearby cities has led officials to wonder if Kentucky may be at the epicenter of an extremely dangerous supply of heroin.
Overdose-reversing drug saves lives in Cincinnati heroin outbreak
Only one day prior to the overdose outbreak in Kentucky, more than 20 people in the Cincinnati area survived heroin overdoses within the span of just two hours. This shows how fast an outbreak of drug overdoses can occur, with the potential to overwhelm emergency responders. Fortunately, first responders carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of overdose. But public officials have noted that a single dose of naloxone may not always be effective in reviving an overdose victim, especially when there is an unusually powerful opioid present, often unsuspected by the drug user. That’s why health officials have recommended giving multiple doses of naloxone until it succeeds in reviving the victim, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Alarmingly, the overdose count from Cincinnati, from Tuesday through Wednesday, has now reached 78 overdoses. Officials in the Greater Cincinnati area were aware that a powerful opioid called carfentanil had entered the drug supply in the region. It was noted in the Cincinnati Enquirer only two days before the surge of heroin overdoses took place. The story notes that this substance is 100 times more powerful than fentanyl. To put that in perspective, drugs laced with fentanyl already make for an increased likelihood of overdose. Kentucky officials suspect the rash of heroin overdoses on Wednesday also involved the presence of these potent opioids in the supply of drugs.
Mass heroin overdoses in WV create national headlines, local dialogues
Last week officials from surrounding regions met in Kenton County, Kentucky, for a task force meeting around the heroin and opioid epidemic. In attendance was the mayor of Huntington, West Virginia, where a spike in heroin overdoses—26 total—had made national headlines earlier in the week. Officials have been at a loss for how to combat the sudden surges in overdose. However, comments from community members at a Huntington City Council meeting indicated that many think wider availability of treatment services is the greatest current need.
These events also highlight the need to educate individuals and communities about the dangers of drug supplies, tolerance, and overdose. While heroin is already deadly enough, those who buy it off the street are often unaware that it might be laced with an even more dangerous substance like fentanyl or carfentanil. Public health education initiatives and quick reporting of overdose spikes could help communities be aware of when particularly dangerous drug combinations are in the region.
In addition, more education is needed about drug tolerance and associated overdose risks. Those who have built up a high tolerance for opioids through continued use are at risk, especially if they have recently stopped using for a period of time. During that time their tolerance decreases, meaning that if they go back to using the amount they formerly did, their body might not be able to handle it. This is a common mechanism for how people suffer an overdose.
The mass heroin overdose reports out of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky, in just over a week have thrown a spotlight on how desperate is the need for more education and more treatment options. With such high numbers of overdoses, time is of the essence.