Fatal drug overdoses increased 38 percent in Virginia between 2015 and 2016, an alarming jump that state health officials attribute to abuse of synthetic opioids, heroin and prescription fentanyl.
A new report from the state medical examiner found an even bigger increase — 175 percent — in deaths from several varieties of fentanyl, a pain medication significantly more potent than morphine.
At least 1,420 people died in Virginia last year of drug overdoses, the fourth year that drugs have outpaced motor vehicle accidents and gun-related incidents as the leading cause of unnatural death in the state. The state Health Department warned that the figure may be understating the reality, because the cause of death has not yet been certified for 60 cases from 2016.
Virginia is not alone in this crisis; in 2014, more than 28,000 people died of opioid overdoses across the country. Heroin deaths have tripled since 2010, with 10,500 deaths in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This year, the Virginia General Assembly passed bills that legalize needle-exchange programs, because intravenous drug users are fueling a rise in hepatitis C and HIV infections; introduce initiatives to increase access to naloxone; change opioid prescription policies; and provide services to infants exposed to opioids in utero.