An increasing percentage of Central Kentucky adults report that friends or relatives have problems with heroin use, according to three years of annual health poll data.
The percentage of adults in Fayette and 16 surrounding counties reporting heroin use problems among friends or relatives grew from 9 percent in 2013 to 14 percent in 2015, according to the latest Kentucky Health Issues Poll.
Those results jibe with an increase in heroin overdose deaths in Lexington during a similar period. From 2012 to 2015, heroin-related overdose deaths more than doubled, according to the Fayette County coroner’s official figures. If the current pace of heroin-related overdose deaths continues through this year, the county could see a five-year high of 76 deaths by the end of the year.
In the poll, more than three in 10 adults in Northern Kentucky reported friends or relatives with problems from heroin use. By that measure, the region was by far the most affected, according to the poll. After a one-year dip in 2014 poll results, the region experienced a nearly 10 percentage point increase in 2015, with 35 percent of poll respondents reporting relatives or friends with heroin problems.
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Statewide, the 2015 Kentucky Health Issues results show 13 percent of Kentucky adults — more than one in 10 adults — with friends or relatives who have heroin use problems.
“We were both surprised and not surprised,” said Kelly Firesheets, a senior program officer of Interact for Health, which conducted the poll. Firesheets said it’s hard to know whether more people are reporting friends or families with problems, because abuse of prescription drugs and heroin is more openly discussed.
Interact for Health in Cincinnati has partnered with the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky on the Kentucky Health Issues Poll each autumn since 2007, said Bonnie Hackbarth, a spokeswoman for the foundation. The results of latest poll, taken from Sept. 17 to Oct. 7, 2015, were released in June. The margin of error was plus or minus 2.4 percent.
In Fayette and 16 surrounding counties, poll results said adults reporting heroin problems among relatives or friends grew from 9 percent in 2013 to 14 percent in 2015.
In Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky counties, heroin use remains far less of a problem than prescription drug abuse, according to those surveyed. But the percentage reporting prescription painkiller addiction or abuse among friends and relatives has fallen in four of the past five years.
No matter the survey results, the overall number of deaths in Kentucky from drug overdoses continues to climb, according to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy’s latest Overdose Fatality Report. Drug overdose deaths hit a record high in 2015: 141, according to the report.
The poll results were released in the same month as the overdose report. Not all findings agree. The Fayette County’s coroner’s office, for instance, reported four fewer overdose deaths in 2015 than did the Office of Drug Control Policy using death certificates. The difference hasn’t been explained, but the coroner’s office said its figures are accurate.
Despite the rising number of fatalities and possible wider heroin use, advocate groups continue to try to curtail heroin deaths and abuse.
“Heroin is a very prevalent issue,” said Dr. Amanda Fallin, a UK nursing researcher and a co-founder of Voices of Hope Lexington. The nonprofit was created to connect those fighting addiction with treatment. “It’s an overwhelming process to go through all the (treatment) options,” Fallin said.
Voices of Hope holds events that teach how to administer naloxone, a drug that reduces the effects of a narcotic overdose long enough for emergency services to arrive. Thegroup also works with other organizations on GetHelpLex.org, a website with treatment options.
GetHelpLex.org connects heroin users or family members with treatment centers in the area.
Alex Elswick, a UK graduate student and another Voices of Hope co-founder, understands how heroin addiction begins and is among those fighting to reduce the numbers in the poll.
“Substance abuse disorders are so heavily stigmatized,” Elswick said. He was prescribed oxycodone after his wisdom teeth were removed when he was 18. After he ran out of the prescription, he bought pain medicine on the street. When legislation curtailed access to pain medicine, he turned to cheaper heroin before getting help at the Salvation Army in Dayton, Ohio.
Elswick meets with recovering addicts on Thursday evenings in the Whitehall Classroom Building at the University of Kentucky.
For families and friends of those addicted, Elswick said, Voices of Hope will host an event at 10 a.m. Aug. 27 for International Overdose Awareness Day. Attendees can mourn together and increase awareness of addiction problems in Lexington, Elswick said.
Elswick told his story to state lawmakers to advocate for successful legislation in 2015 that created stricter penalties for heroin traffickers in Kentucky, gave immunity to heroin users who report heroin overdose victims, allocated funding for treatment, allowed more use of anti-overdose drug naloxone, and provided communities a way to set up needle-exchange programs.
Elswick said his first advice to addicts about getting help is understanding that their disorders are in their brains.
“You can’t fix your broken brain with your own broken brain,” he said.