More than 1,800 hundred people died from opioid-related overdoses in North Carolina in 2017. Early numbers from the first months of last year show a possibility that the number may be slowly on the way down.

Some other numbers are encouraging, including a drop in emergency room visits and the number of pills being prescribed.

But health officials say much more needs to be done to truly turn the tide.

Susan Kansagra is a public health researcher with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. She says years of overprescribing opioid painkillers is at the root of the crisis.

“There was a downplaying of the addictive potential of these medications and at the same time really heavy marketing of these drugs,” she says. “That really led to an over-reliance of these medications. And I think there's a lot more data and a lot more evidence to support alternatives to opioids.”

Prescription drug overdoses fueled the fatalities that occurred in North Carolina until about 2008, when a slow decline began. That was more than offset by deaths from heroin and other illicit opioids, which began spiking about five years ago, including a jump of 34 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“Many users of heroin and fentanyl report that they initially started off on prescription opioids and transitioned,” she says. “We're seeing an evolution of this epidemic.”

Kansagra praised the community response to the crisis.

“I've been working in public health for a long time and I have never seen this type of cross-sector community collaboration,” she says. “Our counties in North Carolina are doing phenomenal innovative work.”  

She says one of the things that's helping is a more widespread distribution of Naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids.

“Anybody at-risk can get the medication through a pharmacy and we have more than 1,700 in our state that are participating,” she says. “We get a lot of data back on the number of overdoses that have been reversed so the Naloxone that has been distributed – there's really good data to show there's impact.”

DHHS received $23 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to increase access to treatment and recovery as well as to reduce opioid overdose deaths through prevention.

A 24-hour hotline for those seeking substance abuse or mental health assistance can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP.

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