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Drug overdoses on the rise in the Alle-Kiski Valley

Chuck Biedka
| Monday, March 18, 2013, 12:21 a.m.

Drug overdoses increased across the Alle-Kiski Valley last year, and physicians say there's no end in sight.

Significantly more people required emergency treatment for overdoses in 2012 than the year before at Allegheny Valley and UPMC St. Margaret hospitals.

Only ACMH Hospital in East Franklin treated fewer overdose patients in 2012 than in the previous year.

While a broad mix of drugs was abused last year across the A-K Valley, cases involving heroin use and the abuse of prescription drugs and powerful painkillers were most prevalent.

Overdoses involving cocaine — once the leading cause of overdoses locally — fell.

Determining how many drug users died from overdoses in each county can't easily be pinpointed, even with hospital and coroner data. That's because some overdose patients are taken to Pittsburgh hospitals, where more sophisticated treatment may be available.

Such a case would be counted as a death in Allegheny County, even if the drug abuser overdosed elsewhere.

Regardless of how the victims are tallied, however, doctors in the Alle-Kiski Valley say drug overdoses and deaths continue to rise.

Emergency physicians have been seeing a gradual increase in drug addition during the past 15 years, said Dr. James Nicholas, of UPMC St. Margaret near Aspinwall.

The year-by-year increase can be small. But these slow-but-steady increases add up, with the Alle-Kiski Valley following regional and national trends:

• The federal Drug Abuse Warning Network estimates that drugs caused about 4.5 million emergency-room treatments in 2009. That figure jumped to about 4.9 million drug-related treatments in 2010, the most recent figures available.

That's a 8 percent jump in one year.

• In recent years, there has been a steady increase of emergency room calls from the region's hospitals to the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center. And that's during a time when the region's population is declining slightly.

Medical Director Dr. Mike Lynch said there were about 5,800 calls about overdoses in 2011 and about 6,000 in 2012.

That makes a 3.2 percent increase.

• In the Valley, Dr. Rod Groomes, ACMH Hospital emergency department director, said he saw about one overdose case per month in 1985.“Now we see one almost every week,” he said.

Lock up or discard drugs

Dr. Dan Geary, medical director in AVH's emergency department, warns parents and grandparents to be aware of what's in their medicine chest: Painkillers and tranquilizers are targets of drug abusers, whether it be relatives or even a friend that somebody brings home.

Many people still have unused, powerful painkillers lying around, he said.

“Many of the kids are having pill parties,” Lynch said. “These are adolescents who don't have access to other drugs. They gather medicines from family members.

“I've heard about the kids getting together and putting the pills in a bowl and then grabbing a handful.”Doctors advise people to either destroy these medicines or turn them in during a periodic drug collections.

“Addiction is a lifelong issue,” Geary said.

Most of phone calls to the Pittsburgh Poison Control Center these days involve heroin or Fentanyl patches and various painkiller pills, including Vicodin and Percoset, Lynch said. Heroin and most other overdose calls have increased, too, he said.

But the number of synthetic marijuana overdoses dropped by 40 percent in one year (69 last year versus 115 in 2011). The relatively new drug came into question legally, and, therefore, became more scarce.

County-by-county review

According to county death reports from 2012:

• The Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office reports at least 271 people died from overdoses.

Nearly two-thirds of those were boys or men.

• Westmoreland County reported 71 drug overdose deaths, with another 14 cases still pending.

Most deaths — 33 — were caused by anti-depressants. Heroin was closed behind (27 deaths).

Twenty other deaths were attributed to oxycodone, a synthetic painkiller.

• The Butler County reported 21 drug-related deaths. Five people died from heroin use.

That's the same number of fatalities as in 2011. Heroin again was the leading single killer (five), tied with morphine — a heavily restricted and guarded painkiller.

• Armstrong County reported six overdose deaths through November 2012, with other cause of death rulings pending, according to the coroner's office.

The county had 11 overdose deaths in 2011, bucking the trend of the other local counties.

AVH saw more heroin cases

At Allegheny Valley Hospital, 216 people sought drug treatment in 2012.

Of those, 78 were treated for heroin or other opiate overdoses. That's 18 more cases — a 30 percent increase — in just one year.

Dr. Geary said the uptick of heroin treatment was noticeable late last summer and early fall.Treatment for other powerful painkillers also rose. Oxycodone, morphine and codeine overdoses rose from 13 to 17 in one year — again, a 30 percent increase.

Although the numbers are small, more than twice as many people were treated for sedatives and hypnotic drugs, 11, than just the previous year.

Perhaps surprisingly, cocaine overdose cases are far down the list — just five cases at AVH last year.

Heroin, pills at St. Margaret

UPMC St. Margaret hospital treated 25 people for heroin overdoses in 2011 and 29 such cases in 2012.

That's a 16 percent increase.

Ten prescription pill overdoses were reported there in 2012, compared to 11 a year earlier, a spokesman said.

Armstrong saw decreases

ACMH Hospital reported 75 drug cases treated in the emergency department in 2011 overall compared to 62 in 2012.

That's a 17 percent decrease.

Last year, 17 people were treated for codeine, oxycodone or methadone overdoses. Another 22 were treated for sedatives and related drugs.

The hospital treated about the same numbers of cocaine cases – six in 2011 and five in 2012.

Dr. Groomes said many cases involve the abuse of prescription drugs.

Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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