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Report: Surge in Drug Deaths Threatens Community at Large

KNOXVILLE - Drug deaths in Knox and Anderson counties have doubled since 2010 amid a near-epidemic health problem that threatens all ranks of the population, from babies to the elderly, a report from the Knox County Regional Forensic Center shows.

Health experts joined prosecutors and police Monday in addressing the "Drug Related Death Report," prepared by the Forensic Center after months of research. Using toxicology reports, death certificates and its own investigative files, the center identified drug deaths for the years 2010-15.

The Knox County Medical Examiner's Office performs autopsies for Anderson County as well as Knox County.

Its research for the report is limited to those counties.

The report is a comprehensive and unique look - for the center, a first - in trying to identify who and why so many people from Knox and Anderson counties are now dying because of drug abuse.

Even with its release, numbers continue to mount. So far this year, which is not covered by the research, 144 people in Knox County have died of suspected drug overdoses, according to the Knox County District Attorney General's Office. In 2014, 155 people died of drug overdoses for the entire year in Knox County, according to the newly released report.

The document identifies death trends, quantifies death rates and ZIP codes where most deaths are taking place. It concludes that people likely are dying in hospitals from drug overdoses that are not examined or captured by the Forensic Center.

"It really presents almost, number one a health care issue in our region, and definitely a growing concern with the expanding population that has been subject to drug abuse," said Knox County Medical Examiner Dr.

Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, whose office prepared the report. "Not just young or poor. Actually, all social levels and age groups are definitely expanding, which is one of the trends that we’ve noticed over the last couple of years."

The report also offers recommendations the community should take to better track drug deaths and to promote communication so that health caregivers, social policy leaders, and law enforcement officials can better identify and tackle rising drug deaths.

Among those attending the Monday morning press conference at the City County Building were Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and Anderson County Mayor Terry Frank. Representatives of the Knoxville Police Department, the Knox County Sheriff's Office and the Metro Drug Coalition also took part.

"The economic impact of the prescription drug abuse is staggering," Mileusnic said. "Just think about the ER visits, hospitalizations, the work hours lost."

As many people know, the impacts of drug abuse are not only financial but also personal.

"These are our brothers and sisters, our parents and even grandparents that are dying," said Dr. Amy Hawes, assistant medical examiner with the Knox County Regional Forensic Center.


Mileusnic said the data offer no sign that drug deaths have reached their peak locally.

"This trend seems unstoppable," she told 10News ahead of the report's release. "It’s really bothersome because you know that it’s going to affect society in a major way."

Among the report highlights Monday:

  • *In 2010, there were 87 drug-related deaths; in 2011, 83; in 2012, 87; in 2013, 114; in 2014, 155; and in 2015, 170.

  • *Oxycodone proved the most frequently found drug in drug-related deaths for each year studied.

  • *Twice as many people died in 2015 from drug deaths in the two counties compared to 2010.

  • *The ZIP codes 37918, 37920, 37917, 37912 and 37849 in the Knoxville area were among the top 10 for drug deaths each year of the review.

"We all need to look at, you know, what schools are in that area," said Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition. "Talk to our friends and neighbors, if we live in those areas, about throwing away their prescription medications, cleaning out their medicine cabinets."

*Drug-related deaths occurred most often in the 45-54 age category, and the categories of 35-44 and 55-64 have shown steady increases through the years.

"I think there's a misconception that this is a problem of young people, maybe between 18 and 25 years of age, when, in fact, it's really people that are in their 40s and 50s who are dying from drugs," Dr. Hawes said, adding, "when it comes to pharmaceutical deaths, that's the age group of patients that start to have other problems, such as back pain, shoulder pain, and they also have co-morbidities, such as heart disease and lung disease, that might make them more susceptible to the side effects from prescription opiates."

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