Although opioid-related deaths continue to grow in Missouri, the increase is slowing down, according to a news release from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

Hundreds of Missourians die each year from opioid use. In 2015, 672 people died from opioid or heroin use, according to the release. In 2016, 908 people died, a 35 percent spike from the year before. Even more people — 951 — died from opioid use in 2017. That’s still an increase, but only by 4.7 percent.

“There is no group of people who are immune to opioid addiction,” said Steve Corsi, the director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, in the news release. “We’ve made great strides in shifting the trajectory of opioid deaths in Missouri over the past year and we want to see that progress accelerate.”

National crisis, local problem

The first wave of the opioid crisis began in the 1990s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, about 115 Americans die each day from an opioid overdose.

In 2016, Missouri ranked 18th in opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people.

“The opioid crisis is the No. 1 public health issue Missouri is facing,” said Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, in the release. He acknowledged that the numbers show improvement, but said that even “one loss is too many.”

Although the metropolitan region around St. Louis tends to see the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the state, Boone County has had its own share of woes.

Between 2013 and 2017, 51 people here died from opioid overdoses, according to the Missouri health department. Local residents aren’t in the dark — they cited substance abuse as a major problem in the 2013 Community Health Assessment.

County and statewide efforts

In response to the crisis and public concern, Columbia established a prescription drug monitoring program in 2017, joining an already-existing database in St. Louis. Pharmacists enter information about the drugs they dispense to patients, and local doctors can view that database to keep tabs on a patient’s prescription history.

Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services and the state health department also co-hosted an opioid summit last November to address the growing epidemic. More than 300 people attended to learn about the crisis and discuss solutions.

Statewide, two points of focus have been preventive care and legislative action.

For example, the state health department has been reviewing data about how drugs are prescribed and dispensed to stay on top of any inappropriate activity. This step is an attempt “to decrease the potential for people to become addicted to opioids,” according to the release.

The Missouri Department of Mental Health and the Missouri Institute of Mental Health also received the Missouri Opioid State Targeted Response grant to make preventive care, treatment and recovery services more accessible for people who struggle with opioid abuse. The grant has also supplied more than 5,000 naloxone kits to people who might abuse opioids, as well as medical care providers who work with them. Naloxone is a medicine that quickly reverses opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A few recent pieces of state legislation have also targeted the opioid crisis. In May, the state government passed a bill that limits initial prescriptions of some opioids to a seven-day supply. The bill also allows pharmacies to offer drug disposal boxes to the public, according to the release.

Missouri’s biannual “drug take-back events” have averaged almost 40,000 pounds of returned drugs per event, according to the release. Also in May, the state passed a bill to extend Medicaid coverage for one year to new moms who need substance abuse treatment. Missouri is the first state to pass this type of policy, according to the release.

Based on the numbers, local and statewide efforts like these seem to be working — but there’s still a long way to go.

“We must continue our efforts to find innovative solutions to combat and curb opioid abuse,” Gov. Mike Parson said in the release. “We remain committed to fighting this drug epidemic and will work to help all families and individuals throughout Missouri.”

Supervising editor is Mike Jenner: jennerm@missouri.edu, 884-2270.

  • Alexis Allison is a reporter, graphics designer and master's student. She studies data journalism and likes to write deeply human stories — especially those that involve public health. Drop her a line at alexisallison@mail.missouri.edu.

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