Last year, 952 Milwaukee County deaths were examined by forensic investigators at the Medical Examiner’s Office on Highland Avenue. Of them, 231, or 24 percent, were caused by opiate overdoses.
“Back in 2003, we had a total of 112 drug overdose deaths and opiates accounted for 73,” said Karen Domagalski, office operations manager at the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Abuse of both prescription and illegal opiate drugs has been rising in Milwaukee, and across the country, for more than a decade: they’re causing an increase in the sheer number of drug-related deaths and a larger proportion of them.
Of all drug overdose deaths in the county last year, opiates caused 91 percent, up from 65 percent in 2003.
To address the city’s problem, the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Department of Emergency Medicine is launching a two-year, $100,000 study of local heroin and opiate use to identify treatment and prevention methods.
Half of the research is being paid for by MCW, and half by the City of Milwaukee. Alderman Michael Murphy, District 10, said he is also trying to secure an additional $50,000 for the study from an unnamed local foundation.
“No one solution is going to be the key, but if we don’t use data, we won’t know which solutions are working and which solutions to pick,” said Dr. Brooke Lerner, research director of MCW’s emergency medicine department, during a Public Safety Committee meeting Thursday morning.
The committee voted in favor of funding half the study, which will examine, in addition to other metrics, the use of an opiate reversal agent called Naloxone.
Lerner said the research team — which includes her, an administrator, a toxicologist and a data analyst — hopes to identify a few initial prevention policies within the first three to six months of the two-year study, while simultaneously gathering all the data they can.
“The deaths, that’s the most stark fact, but when you’re thinking about prevention and how to change things, you need to look at all aspects,” Lerner said.
That includes analyzing hospital, emergency medical services, incarceration and Naloxone use data.