Health district to huddle on ways to stem opioid use

Herald file photo

Herald file photo

Last year, the Snohomish Health District said that local heroin deaths had reached epidemic levels.

With no sign the problem is abating, the public health agency is looking at what it can do now to reduce the problem.

The health district board will be briefed on the rise in heroin and opioid use during its meeting Tuesday. Presentations will be made by Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the health district, and Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Banta-Green has helped champion the cause of increasing the availability of a medicine that can prevent overdose deaths. The medication, called naloxone, or Narcan, can help reverse overdoses of powerful opiates, and is available for purchase at some pharmacies without a prescription.

The drug helps block the effects of prescription pain medications such as oxycodone, Vicodin and codeine, as well as heroin.

Among the steps the health district is taking is contacting local doctors and dentists, asking them to prescribe strong opioid painkillers only when absolutely necessary, said Heather Thomas, a district spokeswoman. Patients who become addicted to painkillers often turn to heroin when their prescriptions expire.

Another step is having the number of patients treated for overdoses reported to the health district, she said.

Counting these cases would be similar to the reporting that goes on for communicable diseases, such as measles or tuberculosis. That way health officials can get a truer picture of the number of people affected by overdoses. Now only deaths from overdoses are tabulated.

Clallam County launched a comprehensive program, so far the only one of its kind in the state, to try to better coordinate services for heroin and opioid users, Thomas said. Health officials in Snohomish County and statewide are trying to see if they can adopt a similar program.

As reported by The Peninsula Daily News, those steps include making counseling more available in its syringe exchange program, implementing an overdose reporting system, and increasing the availability of a medication that can help addicts stop using opioids without unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.

The health district also is planning a series of community forums this summer or fall on the heroin crisis, Thomas said.

The forums would be similar to events previously held in Snohomish and Mukilteo. “There’s been a lot of interest by other cities to have heroin forums,” Thomas said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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