Deaths caused by fentanyl rose 'dramatically' in Alaska last year, officials report

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - State officials reported this week that deaths in the state caused by opioids, specifically the synthetic opioid fentanyl, have increased over the past year, following a trend which so far only seems to increase.

The report, issued by The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Section of Epidemiology, shows that deaths caused by substances classified as opioids have steadily risen over the past seven years.

According to the report, between 2010 and 2017, 623 opioid overdose deaths were reported in Alaska, a number representing a 77 percent increase. Additionally, DHHS said in their release that specific use of fentanyl has "increased dramatically in Alaska last year." In 2017, 108 died in Alaska from opioid-related causes, with a vast majority of those deaths being caused by overdoses, and a good chunk from fentanyl.

Synthetic opioids, not including methadone, caused 37 percent of all opioid overdose deaths in 2017, according to the report. Of those deaths, fentanyl caused 76 percent of the synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

The rise in fentanyl-related deaths was steep between 2016 and 2017, according to the report. 2016 saw 5 deaths caused by the substance, whereas 2017 reported 28 fentanyl-specific deaths.

Dr. Jay Butler, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer and Division of Public Health Director, also touched on the deadliness of fentanyl, saying in a statement, “While deaths caused by prescription opioids and heroin declined in 2017, we have seen more deaths caused by fentanyl, a more deadly synthetic opioid.”

According to the report, the opioid epidemic disproportionately affects certain groups. The department reported that those impacted most are males, white and Alaska Native people, and those people between 25 and 44 years old.

According to the numbers released in the report, White people comprise 27 percent of those affected, and Alaska Native people comprise 41 percent.

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And it's not just those using the drugs who are being affected.

According to the report, the impacts caused by overdosing on opioids are being felt at hospitals around the state on an economic level. Between 2016 and 2017, the department reports, hospital visits in Alaska due to opioid overdose cost more than $23 million.

The opioid devastation is nothing new for Alaska. In 2017, Gov. Bill Walker made a disaster declaration for Alaska’s opioid epidemic.

“This disaster declaration is an important first step in addressing our public health crisis, which has devastated too many Alaskan families,” Walker said at the time of the declaration.

On Thursday, Walker again addressed Alaskans regarding the opioid epidemic, saying he was glad that experts are continuing to lead an effort on the project, despite the increase in opioid deaths.

"I'm proud to report the accomplishments of the team that has been assembled," Walker said.

[RELATED: U.S. Surgeon General visits Alaska: 'We know the opioid epidemic is local'}

Some of the more positive aspects of the report include a decline in Alaska Medicare patients using prescription opioids. This finding could suggest that doctors in the state may be prescribing more conservative amounts of the painkiller.

The report can be read in full here.

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