BIRMINGHAM—More than 40 people interested in developing a comprehensive strategy to address opiate abuse and addiction and quell the rising number of heroin overdose deaths in north Alabama met recently at Canterbury United Methodist Church to organize working groups and lay the groundwork for a community action plan, announced U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance.
The community planning meeting was an outgrowth of the June 10 community awareness summit, “Pills to Needles — The Pathway to Rising Heroin Deaths,” held at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The summit, sponsored by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the UAB School of Public Health, the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Addiction Prevention Coalition, drew more than 300 people and launched the effort to develop a strategic plan.
The summit, and the need for a planned community response, followed a sharp spike in heroin overdose deaths in north Alabama, and across the nation, within the past five years. Heroin-related deaths in Jefferson, Shelby and Tuscaloosa counties soared from 15 in 2008 to 83 in 2012. The number dipped to 72 confirmed deaths for the three counties in 2013, but in April in Jefferson County, the number of heroin overdose deaths was at 36, on pace to exceed the county’s 58 heroin deaths in both 2012 and 2013. In the Northern District of Alabama, federal, state and local law enforcement have worked together since 2012 to prioritize prosecution of heroin suppliers and street dealers. Such prosecutions continue, but enforcement, alone, will not solve the problem.
The key accomplishment today was engaging influential community leaders, with specific expertise across various disciplines and areas of concern, to detail the next steps for working groups that will begin to draw the strategic plan.
“Collaboration across communities and professional disciplines is vital in creating a strategic plan that will organize resources and establish a network that can address the myriad ways opiate abuse affects our families, our lives and our society,” Vance said. “Leaders from the medical, education, law enforcement and faith-based communities in North Alabama, as well as addiction, prevention and treatment professionals, and members of families who have lost a loved-one to overdose, came together today to begin the serious work of developing an action plan.”
“This is a serious public health crisis in our community that demands action,” said Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson. “The dramatic increase in the number of overdose deaths is quite tragic, but this number only tells part of the story of the uncountable number of individuals and families being devastated by addiction to heroin and other opioids,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, and we’ve begun to raise awareness. Now begins the hard work of actually doing something that can make a positive difference.”
Working groups were established in five strategic areas: Public Awareness, Medical Community Engagement, Effective Research and Policy, Law Enforcement Partnership, and Access to Resources.
The next step is for group members to identify leaders, refine the group’s priority items and begin to develop strategies to accomplish their goals. Public and private funding is being sought to support continuing the work toward a comprehensive action plan.
The work is proceeding under the direction of a steering committee identified before the Pills to Needles summit in June. Members of the steering committee are Wilson, UAB School of Public Health Dean Max Michael, Northern District of Alabama U.S. Attorney’s Office Law Enforcement Coordination Manager Lyndon J. Laster, Addiction Prevention Coalition Executive Director J. Sandor Cheka, and Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities Director Foster Cook.