Duke study: Heroin deaths increased 13-fold in New Hanover, Brunswick counties since 1999

SOUTHEASTERN NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Brunswick and New Hanover are among four counties in the state that have seen a 13-fold jump in heroin deaths from 1999 to 2016, according to a study by a team of Duke University students and facility.

The study of death certificates showed that North Carolina experienced an 800 percent increase in opioid deaths in that span.

Brunswick, New Hanover, Gaston and Vance counties showed a much higher leap in those numbers.

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, an assistant professor in the Duke Institute for Brain Studies, who led the North Carolina study, speculated that suppliers may have targeted Brunswick and New Hanover counties due to their location on the coast and the fact that they are tourist destinations.

Schramm-Sapyta also mentioned that the ports in Wilmington and Southport are probable points of entry for heroin smuggling.

"That's just a hypothesis. It's certainly my speculation. It's not really in the data, but the idea is that perhaps the illicit suppliers target an area with easy access, so that's not something that came out of the data it's just pure speculation," Schramm-Sapyta said.

WECT reached out to North Carolina Ports for a comment. Here is what we heard back.

"North Carolina Ports works every day to sustain the highest levels of safety and security at both the Ports of Wilmington and Morehead City. The North Carolina State Ports Authority Police Department is committed to protecting the port facilities and providing a safe and secure environment for all employees, tenants, visitors and neighboring communities. This commitment to safety and security includes people as well as the commodities that move through each of our ports. The North Carolina State Ports Authority Police Department works closely with federal, state and local law enforcement partners to ensure the protection and security of the cargo moving through both port facilities."

Dr. Lawrence Greenblatt, co-chair of the Opioid Safety Committee at Duke Health, said during a news conference Tuesday that many addicts previously would need to get medication from doctors but now are buying drugs from dealers.

"People who use them can get a wonderful sense of euphoria," Greenblatt said. "People are forever chasing that high again. And it takes more and more to achieve that. The drive to get that feeling and get the opioid in their system is so strong.

"The struggle is really to avoid going into withdrawal. Enormous amounts are needed just to function and not feel sick all day."

Greenblatt also mentioned that he has been told by law enforcement experts that as much as 80 to 90 percent of heroin in our area has fentanyl mixed with it and that fentanyl could make up 10 to 50 percent of the mix.

"And I'm told that each milligram of fentanyl is 40 times more powerful than one milligram of heroin," he said. "And it all looks the same. It's a white powder. And it's much more powerful than they expect."

Greenblatt pointed at two possibilities to help those who come into the emergency room after an overdose seek treatment.

"Employing social workers who are embedded in the emergency services department," he said. "Another strategy some are deploying is to use peers support counselors, people in recovery who have had training and have been sober. It's someone they can talk to heart-to-heart to help facilitate the process and it doesn't burden the front line staff."

"I think that people see ongoing addiction behavior as a choice people have," Dr. Greenblatt said. "That people are having fun and could stop if they really wanted to but that's not the case. People would have more compassion and greater willingness to help if they knew the misery it causes."

Schramm-Sapyta said the goal with the study is to alert lawmakers even more to the opioid problem in the area, and to brainstorm ways to work towards a solution.

"What we hope these findings will be used for is to help the state legislators and individual counties to put the resources where they are needed the most," she said.

"I think the most striking thing in our findings was there are 29 counties who don't have a problem with heroin right now. So, we want to prevent it from going into those counties and concentrate our resources on the counties where the problem is already large," Schramm-Sapyta said.

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