State sees progress in opioid fight

Recent data regarding Alaska’s opioid epidemic show that efforts to curb prescription abuse are starting to work, while work to slow the problem’s growth continues.

An Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Epidemiology Bulletin released last week provides updated data for the number of drug overdose deaths in the state, showing the changes between 2015 and 2016. According to the report, drug overdose deaths in Alaska attributed to prescription drugs went down from 84 in 2015 to 73 last year.

Dr. Sarah Spencer of the Ninilchik Community Clinic, a primary care physician with a certification in addiction medicine, says the data is following a national trend. The overprescribing of opioid pain killers in the U.S. is largely undisputed as the root cause of the nation’s current epidemic, she said. But that trend appears to be changing.

“The prescriptions are becoming more appropriately regulated and more judiciously prescribed,” Spencer said.

As new guidelines come out from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and recommendations from other medical associations, they assist physicians with safer prescribing practices, “which is key to trying to … slow down the rise of the number of people who are becoming addicted,” she said.

The crackdown on opioid prescriptions has had other effects on drug overdose deaths, though. As fewer prescriptions were being written, prescription medications on the street became more expensive and harder to come by, Spencer said.

“And at the same time that that happened, heroin became very cheap,” she said.

It also became more widely available. This created a “perfect storm” where heroin is concerned, Spencer said.

The bulletin shows that while prescription drug overdose deaths in Alaska went down from 2015 to 2016, overdose deaths attributed to heroin in the state increased from 36 to 49 in the same time period.

One factor contributing to the continued increase in heroin-related overdose deaths both statewide and nationally is the rise of drugs contaminated with fentanyl, Spencer said. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but it’s about 50 to 100 times stronger.

Spencer said it’s not uncommon to see fake prescription pills being made out of fentanyl. When addicts take these fake pills or heroin cut with fentanyl they are consuming something “vastly more dangerous and more potent,” she said. This makes the likelihood of an overdose increase.

The fight to curb Alaska’s opioid epidemic continues. Gov. Bill Walker’s office announced last Thursday that the state has received $2 million in federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “to support prevention, treatment and recovery services focused on individuals suffering from opioid addiction.” The grant will go toward improving access to treatment resources as well as increasing the availability of naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug commonly used by medical first responders, according to the announcement.

Spencer also hosted a workshop last week in Homer to educate people about knowing the signs of and overdose and being able to properly administer naloxone, with the brand name Narcan.

Efforts continue locally as well, with a Drug Take Back event being held this Saturday at the Soldotna Professional Pharmacy. The event, which allows people to anonymously and safely dispose of their expired or unwanted prescriptions from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., coincides with National Prescription Drug Take Back Day. The initiative was started by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and will be carried out locally by the Soldotna Police Department, the pharmacy and the Change 4 the Kenai coalition.

While it will likely take a few years to see opioid overdose death numbers start to come down, Spencer said the latest data regarding the plateauing of deaths related to abused prescriptions is a step in the right direction.

“The fact that less prescriptions are being written is a really good sign,” she said.

Reach Megan Pacer at

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