The 22 overdose deaths related to fentanyl-laced heroin in Western Pennsylvania recently have drawn increased attention to drug use in the area, and an unexpected trend is being found.
According to Allegheny County Medical Examiner Karl Williams, the average age of overdose victims has risen in recent years. Middle-age men and women in suburban and rural areas are now some of the most common victims of overdose.
“I think the youngest we’ve seen of an overdose is 19, and the oldest gets up to 52, 54. They’re males, females; they come in with a history of opioid ingestion,” Williams said.
Williams cited the example of a 52-year-old man who had undergone cardiac bypass surgery, was still using using pain killers and subsequently died from heroin. The oldest fatal overdose Williams has encountered was a 70-year old victim, but that was not from the heroin-fetanyl mix.
Williams said some abusers and eventual overdose victims start with legal painkillers, including morphine oxycodone and oxycontin, whether they are properly prescribed for legitimate physical problems or not.
“As we start to clamp down on doctors writing those prescriptions, the addicted population finds that heroin is easily available and cheaper,” Williams said.
In recent years, the availability of heroin has increased in the United States, while its price has dropped. According to Williams, two decades ago there was a certain urban demographic that was overdosing on heroin. Now, that demographic has changed and there is an increased population of users in suburban and rural areas.
Williams said this development can be traced as far back as 10 years to rural parts of Virginia and West Virginia, where individuals were becoming addicted to prescription painkillers and later switching to heroin.
“You had a Medicare population and doctors prescribe an average of 60 oxycodone at a time for any pain syndrome," he said. "They’re very, very addictive drugs.”
The overall number of overdoses has increased as well. This growth is most likely due to the introduction of dangerous multiple drug cocktails.
“We find them in this toxic brew of sometimes four, five, seven, eight different drugs at a time, all we feel contributing to the overdose,” Williams said.
In Allegheny County, fatal overdoses increased from 100 in 1997 to 268 in 2012.