On Wednesday, October 14, President Barack Obama announced his plans to come to West Virginia and hold a forum on opioid and prescription drug abuse.
As Obama comes to the Mountain State this week it will be his third visit as president, with the other two coming in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners in Raleigh County and the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, both of which occurred in 2010.
During his time in Charleston, the president will gather at the Roosevelt Center on the city’s East End to meet with leaders in the state to talk about a prescription drug abuse problem that has rattled the state and the nation.
As noted in a story by Gazette-Mail reporter David Gutman, in 1992, about 30,000 Americans were admitted to hospitals for overdoses or problems related to prescription opioids.
Fast forward to 2006, and the number of Americans hospitalized for prescription drugs jumps to 130,000.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 15,000 people die every year from overdoses involving prescription painkillers. That’s higher than the number of people who die as a result of using heroin and cocaine combined.
Many experts have said prescription drug abuse in the United States has reached epidemic proportions.
As drug developers began producing more prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, in the early 2000s, they became more prevalent.
In 1997, there were about 920,000 OxyContin prescriptions written in the United States.
Five years later, doctors wrote more than 7.2 million prescriptions for OxyContin.
In 2010, 12 million Americans (over the age of 12) reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers.
Yet even before opioid abuse permeated throughout the nation, it was a very Appalachian problem.
According to John Temple, a professor at West Virginia University who authored a new book called “American Pain”, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maine were among the states that were hardest hit by OxyContin abuse.
“Between 1998 and 2001, a cluster of nine counties on both sides of the Kentucky/West Virginia border received more prescription narcotics per capita than anywhere else in the country,” Temple wrote in his book.
Today, the problem is so pervasive that drug wholesalers shipped more than 200 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone to West Virginia from 2007 to 2012, according to a story by Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre.
Preliminary figures released by the state on Monday indicate that in 2014, there were 199 oxycodone-related deaths and through the first nine months of this year, there have been 94 oxycodone-related deaths.
In addition, Eyre recently reported that through June of this year, nearly 90 West Virginians have died of overdoses caused by fentanyl.
West Virginia has the highest rate of overdose deaths in the nation, according to a June 2015 report.
According to that report, from 2011 to 2013, West Virginia had a drug overdose death rate of 33.5 per 100,000 people.
During the same time period, the national average was 13 per 100,000 people.
The recent increase in the state’s death rate is significantly higher than it used to be: from 2007 to 2009, West Virginia averaged 22 deaths per 100,000 people.
According to drug-overdose death totals from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources provided to the Daily Mail in April, West Virginia had more than 6,300 deaths from 2001 to 2014.
As noted by Eric Eyre, since 2010, the state has seen more than 2,876 people die after taking opioids. Add in the people who died after taking other prescription drugs and drugs, like cocaine, that aren’t considered opiates and the figure rises to 3,333 deaths in the last five years.
From 2001 to 2014, the epicenter of heroin-related overdose deaths was Cabell County. During that period, according to preliminary figures from the state, 109 people died.
Berkeley County, which also had 109 deaths during the same time period, fell slightly behind with 104.6 deaths per 100,000.
Kanawha County -- the state’s largest by population -- has seen 64 heroin-related deaths since 2001, giving it a per capita of 33 per 100,000.
Since 2001, Kanawha County has led the way in terms of the sheer number of people who have died due to overdoses. The latest figures indicate the county has seen 871 overdose deaths during that time period.
The latest figures from the state Department of Health and Human Resources indicate the state and local authorities still continue to struggle with opioid abuse.
The latest data from 2015 indicates 21 counties have overdose rates higher than 13 percent, which was the national average between 2011 and 2013. Only 10 out of West Virginia’s 55 counties did not record an overdose death through July.
The problem has been further fueled by several factors, including but certainly not limited to, the prevalence of illicit drugs, high unemployment rates and a stagnant economy.
Today, the number of heroin-related deaths is nearly 30 times higher than it was a decade ago. Heroin-related deaths are three times more likely among males than among females.
Nearly half of all heroin-related overdose deaths in the last 5 years occurred in people aged 25-34.
According to a 2013 survey performed by the West Virginia Department of Education, three percent of the state’s high school students have tried heroin.
But the problem is not simply affecting those in school.
Before some West Virginians can even begin to walk and talk, they are addicted due to their parents. As recently noted by Gazette-Mail reporter Lydia Nuzum, in 2009 the Cabell-Huntington Hospital found that 80 out of every 1,000 pregnant women were addicted to drugs. Their addiction leads to children that are addicted. In 2013, that number was 139 out of every 1,000 pregnant women.
As is the case with opioid abuse in general, the problem is hardly concentrated to West Virginia. It is estimated that as many as 13,000 babies suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome -- the clinical term for newborns who are exposed to addictive drugs while in the womb.
Law enforcement officials, politicians and everyday citizens remain hopeful that something can and will change and the state won’t continue to be ravaged by opioid abuse.
There have been countless news stories about those who have been impacted by the state’s struggles (as noted by Gazette-Mail reporter Erin Beck), legislative acts, studies, forums, task forces and reports detailing the pervasiveness and horrors of West Virginia’s opioid problem.
And in recent years, the state’s legal system has adopted a drug court system in hopes of further addressing the epidemic. Gazette-Mail Kate White recently wrote about the effects of the state’s heroin and prescription drug problem.
In 2015, thanks to the actions of state lawmakers, law enforcement officials have been given a new tool in the form of opioid antagonists, known as naloxone.
Although significant progress has been made thanks to state officials, not all the ideas have come from law enforcement and politicians. In hopes of address the needs of state’s most vulnerable, a group of dedicated individuals began helping babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome. Many have praised the success of Huntington-based Lily’s Place and called for it to be modeled after.
It remains to be seen whether enough progress has been made. Preliminary 2015 data the Gazette-Mail obtained from the state Department of Health and Human Resources indicates there have been 363 drug overdose deaths through July.
While many problems associated with the opioid epidemic remain, one thing is certain - President Obama’s visit will put a national spotlight on the state’s ongoing battle against drug abuse.