First responders in Huntington, West Virginia, were overwhelmed by twenty-six cases of heroin overdoses on Monday evening across a four hour period.

No casualties were reported since all victims were successfully revived with naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose. Local authorities noted that the heroin used had been tainted with another unknown substance.

Twenty-six cases of heroin overdoses were received Monday in Huntington, West Virginia, in just a four hour period. Photo credit: Substance Abuse
Twenty-six cases of heroin overdoses were received Monday in Huntington, West Virginia, in just a four hour period. Photo credit: Substance Abuse

The city of Huntington, with approximately 49,000 inhabitants, is located in West Virginia — the state that, in 2014, had the highest rate of drug poisoning deaths with 36 for every 100,000 residents.

That’s eight residents more than the second-highest state, New Mexico, with 28 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and considerably higher than the national rate reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 15 every 100,000 inhabitants.

Overdoses are increasing

This is all part of an unfortunate increase in drug poisoning deaths in the United States.

According to a working paper by Christopher Ruhm from the University of Virginia, drug poisoning deaths have dethroned motor vehicle fatalities as the leading cause of death in the US.

This means that deaths by overdose have had a massive increase in recent years, a whopping 425 percent, adjusting for population, since 1982. And cities like Huntington are leading in these unfortunate trends.

Mixed heroin

The fact that the heroin was tainted with another drug is of interest. Deaths caused by overdosing on combined drugs, such as heroin mixed with a potent painkiller known as fentanyl, or carfentanil have also increased in recent years.

Ruhm’s paper mentions the dangers of these opiate combinations, but there are challenges when it comes to keeping track of the overdose epidemic, especially incomplete information regarding the various types of drugs used.

The Centers for Disease Prevention (CDC) keeps track of this information by making use of death certificates, which suffer from varying degrees of completeness and accuracy: nearly twenty percent of all overdose deaths mention a single “unspecified” drug.

How to deal with this lack of data

Ruhm extrapolated information from counties which had better and more complete death certificates to counties with similar drug use patterns and population. This resulting analysis suggests that these “combination drugs” are a pretty significant factor in drug poisoning rate.

The compounded drugs could be even greater than what’s only shown in the numbers of death certificates, for example, according to the CDC, 34.4 percent of fatal drug overdoses involved more than one drug.

However, Ruhm’s adjusted numbers indicate a 49.3 percent, which is almost half the fatal cases, with a difference of 14.9 percent with the CDC’s tally.

All of this shed light on a simple fact regarding the purchase of drugs in the black market: users don’t know what exactly they are buying.

Some might be looking for more powerful drugs while others might not know those dangerous drugs are included with their heroin.

“If you have heroin please see what’s going on and don’t use it. It could be your last time,” pleaded Gordon Merry, the Cabell County EMS director, to Huntington’s residents that same Monday.

Sources: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette