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Heroin-related illnesses rising in Oxford area

Heroin use in Lafayette County may be on the rise, according to local health and law enforcement officials.

Mark Otten, chief nursing officer at Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi said the hospital has seen an increase of patients being admitted from secondary infections from injecting heroin.

“They’re coming into the emergency room very, very ill,” Otten said. “It’s not something we’ve seen in a long time. Now, we’re seeing two, three or four being admitted who are very ill with damage to their organs or secondary infections from injecting heroin.”

Drug abuse-related ER visits, in general, have also been increasing, according to Jason Waller, medical director of ER at Baptist who said the hospital saw 300 people in the ER  in 2016 for cases where drugs played a part in their illness.

“Five years ago it was very rare seeing someone come in with heroin abuse-related illnesses or overdoses,” Waller said. “But it has become more common over the last two or three years.”

Otten believes the increasing numbers at the hospital are on the “tip of the iceberg.”

“If we’re seeing these numbers, that means there’s much more in the community who haven’t gotten to where they need emergency medical attention,” he said.

While most of the patients being seen at Baptist for heroin-related illnesses are female, ranging in age from 20 to 30 years old; Waller said it’s a mix of people from all walks of life.

“It’s all ages, all races, male and female,” Waller said.

So why the increase?

Medical experts have said the increase is likely caused by drug abusers who became addicted to narcotic pain medications and once those started to become less available, turned to heroin which can be cheaper and in some cases, easier to buy off the street than pills.

Stricter prescription laws and the development of the Mississippi Prescription Monitoring Program has made obtaining pain medications more difficult.

The Mississippi Prescription Monitoring Program is an electronic tracking program managed by the Mississippi Board of Pharmacy to help practitioners and medical dispensers identify the possible inappropriate use of controlled substance drugs and other designated medications, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health. The online service supplies a patient’s controlled substance prescription history and information about the prescriber and dispenser.

“The state medical boards are really trying to crack down on narcotics and how they are being prescribed,” Otten said.

Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Director Rod Waller said he agrees with other experts who believe the sharp increase in opiate pain medications has led to the increase of heroin use.

But there’s some good news, according to Waller.

“We’ve seen an increase in heroin use, but not really in heroin sales here in Lafayette County,” he said. “Most are going to the bigger cities, like Memphis to purchase heroin.”

Some of the increase of heroin-related illnesses could also be due to Fentanyl-laced heroin.

In March 2015, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert in response to a surge in overdose deaths from heroin laced with fentanyl, the most potent opioid available for medical use. According to the DEA, fentanyl and fentanyl analogs produced in illegal labs are up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30-50 times more powerful than heroin.

However, Otten said BMH has not had any overdoses due to Fentanyl-laced heroin.

“We’ve seen reports of it in other states, but haven’t seen anything here,” he said.

Nationally, heroin-related deaths are also on the rise, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2015 report.

The greatest increases have occurred in groups with historically lower rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes. The report also finds the strongest risk factor for a heroin use disorder is a prescription opioid use disorder.

As heroin use increases, more people are dying from heroin overdoses, according to the CDC. Heroin-involved overdose deaths nearly doubled between 2011 and 2013; more than 8,200 people died in 2013 alone.

Some heroin abusers may not seek out medical attention even if they suspect they have an infection or illness caused by the drug out of fear that hospital personnel will notify law enforcement.

Henning said Baptist does not call the police for drug-related illnesses.

“We don’t routinely notify law enforcement,” Henning said. “Our main focus is to get them the medical help they need.”

Otten said law enforcement is only called to the hospital for criminal activity.

“We want (drug abusers) to feel safe coming here so they can get better,” he said.