Published 5:08 pm Saturday, July 20, 2013

In 2011, the Beaufort County Health Department assembled a mass of information from many sources and combined it in one report: the State of the County Health Report.

The report touches on many subjects affecting the health and wellbeing of county residents. It plainly states the main causes of illness and death: heart disease and cancer. But SOTCH also shows that 25.6 percent of 1,048 residents surveyed thought substance abuse was the top health concern in Beaufort County.

Beaufort County is not unique in this. In 2012, more than 1,100 deaths in North Carolina were directly attributable to prescription, opioid, pain medication. According to the National Institute of Health, four years ago, Wilkes County, nestled on North Carolina’s eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains, had the third-highest rate of prescription pain medication overdoses in the country — four times the North Carolina average. It took an intervention to stop an epidemic that was killing more people than car wrecks in Wilkes County — an intervention called Project Lazarus. It was started by a hospice chaplain, who recognized the problem and drew the community into his efforts involving faith-based organizations, county health and school-board officials, law enforcement and others, to solve the problem. Since, deaths in Wilkes County caused by overdoses of prescription opioid pain relievers have dropped 69 percent.

In Beaufort County, the number of overdoses from pain medications is rising year by year. According to Investigator Greg Rowe, the drug diversion officer for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, reports of overdoses to the county 911 call center have steadily risen from 17 in 2008 to 27 in 2012. Deaths from overdoses have risen as well. County records indicate that in 2012, two deaths could be directly attributed to prescription pain meds. In 2013, that number is at six so far — one of them intentional, the rest, unintentional, according to Maj. Kenneth Watson, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

“Most times, it’s your everyday drug users that are pushing for something more or are trying something new,” Rowe said, referring to a “better high” sought after by abusers.

But a two-year-old pain meds prescription belonging to a spouse led to one, deliberate, overdose this year; a fifth of Wild Turkey imbibed along with pain meds to another, accidental, overdose, according to county records.

The abuse of prescription pain medications spans age, race, geographic boundaries and socioeconomic status, Rowe explained, and it’s why his position was created, and received a state grant for the second year running — to form a better network in the community, involving doctors, pharmacists and caregivers so they can all spot the warning signs of abuse and make prescription meds less accessible to those who would sell or use them in an abusive way.

Through investigators’ efforts, 3,500 prescription pills have been taken off the street so far this year, Rowe said.

This week’s installation of a permanent drop box for prescription drugs in the lobby of the sheriff’s office is another measure being taken. Until now, the biannual Operation Medicine Drop was the only way to dispose of prescription pain medications in safe way, Rowe said, but with the permanent drop box, Beaufort County residents can take that first proactive, and anonymous, step year-round to prevent the abuse of prescription pain medications — getting them out of the house.