‘Incredible loss of life’ to overdoses

Over seven years, Hancock County lost nearly 2,000 years of life expectancy because of opioid overdoses, and Ohio lost more than half a million years.

Those figures are among the findings of a recent report by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, a collaboration between Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and the University of Toledo’s College of Health and Human Services.

Statewide, 13,059 Ohioans died from opioid overdoses from 2010 to 2016, and those overdoses accounted for 519,471 years of life lost.

“This figure represents over half a million years of life lost to Ohioans due to a preventable cause,” the organization’s report states.

Overdose deaths in the state are continuing to rise, with 140,045 years of life lost attributable to overdoses in 2016 alone. That year, opioid overdoses had the effect of lowering the life expectancy of an average Ohioan by 1.1 years.

“One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the opioid epidemic is the incredible loss of life as so many young people die of overdoses,” said Randy Leite, dean of Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions.

“The years of life lost data paint a picture of the greatest consequence of the epidemic — the loss of so many individuals who could have been productive parents, spouses, workers and citizens,” he said.

The years of life lost were calculated by using data from death certificates from the Ohio Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. The researchers used a protocol used by the World Health Organization, subtracting the age of death of each person from the Social Security Administration’s information on standard life expectancy by gender.

Hancock County lost 1,993 years of life from 2010 to 2016, according to the report. Putnam County lost 483 years; Allen County lost 3,033 years; Hardin County lost 1,325 years; Henry County lost 582 years; Wood County lost 2,556 years; and Seneca County lost 1,401 years.

While these figures reflect numbers of years lost, some counties have higher populations than others. So the researchers made a second map, calculating number of years lost per 100,000 residents.

Those figures are: Hancock County, 2,665 years; Putnam County, 1,400 years; Allen County, 2,852 years; Hardin County, 4,133 years; Henry County, 2,063 years; Wood County, 2,037 years; and Seneca County, 2,469 years.

Orman Hall, executive in residence at Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions and a former director of the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, said some counties had fewer opioid deaths, and it was hard to get statistically meaningful numbers.

So Wyandot County is among a few counties that are blank on the map.

Hall said researchers wanted to look at the overdose data in a different way. He said hearing that Ohio lost 500,000 years of life expectancy over a seven-year period “does put it in more dramatic terms.”

Hall said the overdose death rate has accelerated as fentanyl has become more prominent. It’s a more powerful drug and is also “more unpredictable,” in that a user might not know how big of a dose is being taken.

Fentanyl-related deaths in Ohio increased from 77 in 2010 to 2,357 in 2016, and fentanyl overdoses accounted for 96,118 years of life lost in 2016, according to the report.

Hall said one of the things driving the increased death rate is not that so many more people are using drugs, but that stronger drugs are being used.

Before serving as Gov. John Kasich’s director of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services, Hall was director of the Fairfield County ADAMHS board. There, he said, a 1999 study found that just four people in the community had sought treatment for addiction to prescription drugs or heroin that year. By 2010, there were agencies in the county having to turn away 200 people a month.

“That’s the degree of change that we’ve seen,” he said.

Hall said Ohio does need to reduce the use of opioids in the health care system, but must ensure that those who need them for pain “aren’t abandoned.”

He said if a patient’s doctor cuts the patient off from prescription medication, the patient might then seek heroin or fentanyl.

Hall said medications to treat opioid addiction, such as methadone, buprenorphine and Vivitrol, must be available, and deciding what to use “should be a clinical decision” and not “personal bias.”

He also said it’s important to intervene immediately with people who have had a nonfatal overdose. He said an approach like the Quick Response Team in Findlay is an important part of addressing the problem.

Bill Fedirka leads the team, based at Century Health. He meets with people who have recently survived an overdose, and encourages them to seek treatment.

Fedirka, himself in recovery from addiction, said, “No one ever approached me when I was in that down-and-out spot.” So now, he approaches others.

He’s talked to about 55 overdose survivors since the program started. He estimated 70 percent of them are now in recovery. He said only a few people have told him to “go away” when he shows up at their door.

Fedirka said it’s crucial to talk to an overdose survivor right away. He meets some at the hospital immediately afterward and tries to encourage them to seek detox or another type of treatment — “I let them choose.”

And if some say they don’t want to right now, he says, “Is it all right if I come and bother you again next week?”

Fedirka also hears from family members who call after witnessing their child or spouse survive an overdose.