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Local health professionals combat opioid problem

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Recently released state data indicate a significant increase in Chaves County drug overdose deaths in 2017 compared to 2016, but local health professionals say that they think the long-term rates show progress and that they have developed a new awareness campaign aimed at helping more people.

“We are making improvements,” said Kim Rutley. “We are learning more about how opioid use and misuse affects Chaves County and what we can do to help our community.”

Rutley is a prevention coordinator with La Casa Community Behavioral Health, which administers a grant from the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, part of the New Mexico Human Services Department. The initiative funded by the grant aims to prevent substance abuse in the county.

Now in the fourth year of the five-year grant, an “opioid core team” made up of representatives from many different social, educational, health and medical organizations in the county is implementing several educational and prevention efforts after spending the first years gathering data and building partnerships. Another part of the grant effort seeks to reduce underage drinking.

Opioids are the main focus of overdose death preventions because they are considered the most significant factor. A New Mexico Department of Health report released in December 2018 indicates that 88 percent of drug overdose deaths from 2013-17 in the state were unintentional. Prescription pain-killers, or opioids, are either the sole cause or contributing factor to 58 percent of the state’s unintentional drug overdose deaths. For the county, 61 of its 69 overdose deaths from 2013-17 were unintentional, and prescription drugs were the only contributing factor in 33 cases (54 percent).

The county’s overdose rates increased in 2017, but Rutley said that professionals consider five-year rates more significant than single-year results.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health Substance Abuse Epidemiology Profile issued in December, Chaves County had 22 drug overdose deaths in 2017, a 38.2 percent death rate. That compares to 13 deaths in 2016, a 20.8 percent death rate.

The five-year numbers for Chaves County from 2013 to 2017 show a total of 69 deaths, or a 22.8 percent death rate. The 2012 to 2016 county rate was 19.5 percent (59 deaths). The death rate from 2011 to 2015 was 22.1 percent.

As Rutley pointed out, the county rate continues to be lower than the state rate. For 2013-17, the death rate in New Mexico was 24.6 percent. From 2012 to 2016, the state death rate was 24.6 percent. For 2011 to 2015, the death rate was 25.3 percent for the state.

New Mexico drug overdose death rates have significantly improved over time. New Mexico now ranks 17th in the nation for drug overdose deaths. In 2014, it had the second-highest rate in the nation. And 2017 was the first time since 1999 that it did not rank in the top 15 in the nation. New Mexico’s lowered death rates come in the midst of national decreases as well.

“The solution is not just in DOH (the Department of Health),” said Community Epidemiologist Francisco Porras of the New Mexico Department of Health. “The solution is also community-based.”

Porras and other Health Department officials, including Health Promotion Program Manager Jimmy Masters, work with healthcare providers and community organizations to address numerous substance abuse and health issues in the area, and they said that education and prevention efforts are myriad. They include programs involving public school nurses to assess and refer students for treatment, a March 6 opioid awareness youth summit in Rio Rancho for middle and high school students (people 24 and younger represented 5.6 percent of overdose deaths in New Mexico in 2017), the continuing effort to distribute the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone, the 2-year-old state prescription monitoring program to ensure that doctors do not overprescribe pain-killers and the biannual prescription drug take-back days, with Chaves County being one of the largest collectors of unwanted or expired prescriptions in the state during those events.

But a new effort in the local opioid fight is “A Dose of Reality,” an awareness campaign launched in the county in January, Rutley said.

Announcements will be seen on social media channels and at theaters, she said, and are intended to increase understanding of the highly addictive and potentially harmful nature of opioids, inform people about the need for safe storage and disposal, and reduce the stigma attached to addiction so that people will seek help when needed. Information is also being distributed through pharmacists in the area, and posters will be distributed to medical offices and hospitals.

Rutley said she thinks many people still do not understand how the problem can affect everyone. She described hearing from medical professionals about several educated professionals who began taking opioids for an injury, became addicted within days or weeks and then began buying heroin because they could not obtain any more prescriptions. She and Porras also pointed out that some of the deaths have nothing to do with people seeking highs or with addictions, but with children taking pills accidentally or the elderly using the drugs inappropriately.

They added that part of the work of the area coalition is to encourage people to use new pain-killing interventions to decrease reliance on opioids and the prescribing of them. Porras said effective interventions will vary depending on the group of potential opioid users.

“We have to be thinking about how we can prevent new drug users,” he said. “The committee’s work is key to that. That’s why some coalitions are working with youth, while some are working with people 65 or older on pain management.”

The state Department of Health data, as well as data gathered through surveys done by the local group, helps professionals come up with solutions, said Rutley.

“We are really going to dig into the data to understand who in Chaves County is at particular risk for prescription pain-killer overdose,” she said, “and knowing who those folks are really helps us to better reach them to prevent potential addiction and overdose.”

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.