Residents across Appalachia are 55 percent more likely to die from a drug overdose than people in the rest of the country, but the disparity is even higher in some Eastern Kentucky counties.
In Leslie County, for instance, the overdose death rate is five times the national average.
That’s according to a new data tool released Tuesday by the Appalachian Regional Commission, which has information on drug-overdose death rates for each county in the sprawling region.
The tool overlays the overdose rates with socioeconomic data such as poverty, unemployment, education and disability rates. The purpose is to illustrate the relationship between drug deaths and other factors.
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“The Appalachian Region has been taking a disproportionate hit in overdose deaths in relation to the rest of the country,” said Scott T. Hamilton, ARC executive director. “This tool puts overdose statistics in socioeconomic context, which can be valuable to communities developing comprehensive strategies to address the epidemic.”
NORC at the University of Chicago, a non-partisan research institution, developed the mapping tool in collaboration with the ARC.
The map shows that counties in Central Appalachia with the highest overdose-death rates also have the lowest levels of educational attainment and the highest rates of people receiving disability benefits.
The death rate is highest in Central Appalachia but the toll is climbing in other parts of Appalachia, according to a news release.
Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern and Southern Kentucky and nearby areas of West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, has been hit hard by abuse of prescription pain pills such as oxycodone, and heroin use has increased in some areas in recent years.
The tool drills down to provide death rates and socioeconomic information for each of the counties in Appalachia for two five-year periods — 2006 to 2010 and 2011 to 2015.
It shows, for instance, that the overdose death rate in Leslie County averaged 102.6 people ages 15 to 64 per 100,000 population from 2011 through 2015. There aren’t 100,000 people in the county, but researchers calculate data over that population size to provide a standard comparison among counties.
The U.S. rate was 20.6 deaths.
Several other Eastern Kentucky counties had rates many times the national level, including Floyd, at 95.1; Bell, 92.3; Knott, 84.4; and Harlan, 54.3. In West Virginia, the overdose death rate topped 150 in two counties.
There also were high rates in some counties that are included in the ARC region, but are not traditionally thought of as being Appalachian counties. Clark County, for instance, had an average overdose-death rate of 52.3.
The ARC covers all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states, including 54 counties in Kentucky.
One hope for the mapping tool is that it will help policymakers and community leaders who are grappling with how to tackle the epidemic of substance abuse, by showing “underlying, systemic factors that also need to be addressed,” said Michael Meit, co-director of the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and leader of the research conducted for ARC.
“To address the problem, you need to understand the extent of the problem,” Meit said.
The research could help with funding decisions, for instance, Meit said.
NORC at the University of Chicago has done other research on death rates in Appalachia, including one released last year on how the prevalence of overdoses, suicide and alcoholic liver disease and cirrhosis of the liver — “diseases of despair — are helping drive up death rates in Appalachia.
That study said the death rate from all causes among people 15 to 64 outside Appalachia went down 10 percent between 1999 and 2014, but went up 5 percent in Appalachia in the same period.
In 1999, the mortality rate from all causes in Appalachia was 12 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S. but the difference grew to 32 percent in 2015, the study found.