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Opioid-related deaths in St. Louis region rose again in 2017

A kit containing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
The number of opioid-related deaths went up 5 percent in the St. Louis region in 2017, but advocates say the increased availabilty of the opioid overdose antidote nalaxone helped slow the rate.

Preliminary data from the community health agency NCADA show the number of opioid-related deaths in the St. Louis area rose again last year, as they have since 2007.

Nearly 760 people died due to opioids in 2017, a 5 percent increase from 2016. That was a relative improvement from the dramatic spike between 2015 and 2016, when deaths jumped from 517 to 712, or a 38 percent increase. The total includes deaths from things like driving under the influence of opioids as well as overdose deaths.

“We know in the past year we’ve seen treatment become more available,” said Brandon Costerison, the public awareness specialist at NCADA. “We know that naloxone has become more available. And we know that more people are calling for medical aid because of Missouri’s Good Samaritan law.”

The law limits the criminal charges someone can face if they call 911 for a drug overdose.

NCADA collects opioid death data from medical examiners in the city of St. Louis, and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin, Warren and Lincoln counties in Missouri, and St. Clair and Madison counties in Illinois, Costerison said.

The city and St. Clair County went against the regional trend of increasing opioid-related deaths. In St. Louis, 248 people died in 2017, compared to 273 the year before. Deaths in St. Clair dropped from 35 to 31 — the county has seen fewer deaths per year since 2014. St. Charles County had the biggest spike, at 48 percent.


Jessica Berkemeier, coordinator of St. Charles County’s prescription drug monitoring program, said a synthetic opioid called fentanyl is likely to blame.

“Fentanyl is more potent, and if a person that is using heroin does not know that it is in their supply, they may take a larger dose than they should be taking, or what their threshold is,” she said.

Lincoln County also saw a sharp increase, but Costerison said it was likely officials there had been under-reporting opioid-related deaths for years.

Local, state and federal governments need to invest more in prevention, Costerison said. The easiest way to end opioid deaths is to stop addiction in the first place.

“Short of that, though, increasing access to treatment is absolutely essential so that when people are ready to stop using, they have the resources and supports to do so,” he said.

Costerison also wants to expand the availability of nalaxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.