Nationwide, it’s been labeled a public health epidemic.

While several officials in northwest Kansas are quick to say the region has not yet seen a huge spike in illegal use of opioid drugs, it is a growing concern. And agencies throughout the region are taking steps to help prevent the problem from worsening and to help those already addicted.

Valley Hope addiction treatment center in Norton is among the local agencies reporting an increase in the number of patients suffering from opioid addiction. The facility last year introduced a new medical treatment targeted specifically for patients battling opioid addiction through heroin or prescription painkiller abuse.

“What happens is one of the main issues that is a challenge is people coming off the heroin or the pain medications, when they stop use, they go into severe withdrawals,” said Javier Ley, program director at the Norton treatment center. “Body aches, spasms, sweating — just general not feeling well. So many individuals — to avoid feeling like that — they just continue using.”

The treatment center — working with the local hospital and physicians — is now able to offer a prescription drug called Suboxone that helps ease the process of detoxing. It’s the only facility offering the treatment throughout western Kansas, eastern Colorado and southwest Nebraska.

The medication is used alongside traditional treatment methods, including therapy, education and 12-step programs after the inpatient treatment. Valley Hope patients live on-site during their treatment, with rooms available in the main building’s nurses' station or in independent living apartments on the property.

Most patients would require only a short-term treatment to help ease the initial withdrawal, but those who are severely addicted might need to continue longer, Ley said. Staff help patients prepare a long-term treatment plan that includes the ability to continue needed medication or therapy after their release.

Physicians have to go through special training and receive approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration to prescribe the medicine.

By reducing drug cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms, the hope is more patients will be able to overcome the detoxing period and continue efforts to cease opioid use.

Alcohol is still the No. 1 drug regional patients are seeking treatment for, Ley said, but a significant concern is a growing number of drug-induced deaths contributed to opioid overdose. Meth also continues to be more prevalent than opioid drugs in northwest Kansas, but last year the reported numbers of overdose deaths from the two drugs were very close, he said.

“It’s less in Kansas than it is in other parts of the country,” Ley said of opioid use. “In other parts of the country, the rates of increases in use of opioids is more dramatic than what has happened in Kansas. But most experts agree it’s just a matter of time before things start getting worse in Kansas.”

Valley Hope, across its 16 service locations in seven states, saw the number of patients seeking treatment for opioids increase from 11.9 percent to 28.5 percent from 2007 to 2016. The average age of opiate drug users also decreased from 33.8 to 29.4 during the same time frame.

Perhaps most alarming is that treatment centers saw a significant increase in the percentage of opioid-related patient episodes in those 18 to 25 years old, from 29.9 percent to 51.6 percent.

Valley Hope has seen an increase in patients using both heroin and pain pills, but once addicted, people often begin to use both drugs interchangeably. Those using heroin are at an especially high risk of accidental overdose and death, Ley said, as another dangerous trend during the past few years involves a growing prevalence of synthetic drugs laced with fentanyl.

“So what they do to make heroin even cheaper, they mix it with fentanyl because fentanyl is cheaper than heroin. So they mix it and people don’t know what they’re buying,” he said. “They think they’re just buying heroin. They don’t know it’s laced heavily with fentanyl because somebody wanted to make more buck per gram, and they die.”

The treatment facilities — and a growing number of first responders nationwide — also are equipped with an emergency nasal spray drug that can help reduce the effects of opioid overdose. That drug, however, is not as effective if fentanyl is involved, he said.

Valley Hope and Norton County Hospital also are launching combined efforts to educate the community about the dangers of abusing prescription opiate painkillers, and similar efforts also have been introduced in Ellis County — which has not yet seen a significant increase in opioid-related drug activity, said Scott Braun with the Ellis County Drug Enforcement Unit.

When an opioid case is reported in the Hays area, it’s more likely to be an issue with abused pain medication, he said, noting heroin use has not increased locally.

“Unfortunately, law enforcement is reactive, especially in the prescription side of it,” Braun said. “We deal with middle-aged people that are addicted, and it’s kind of a close-knit community. Unless they’re a huge abuser, they’re just kind of doing it behind the scenes, so that’s what you see. There’s not a lot of drug cases developed on those people in regards to that.”

By taking action early, Ley and others are hoping to get ahead of the growing opioid problem before it hits closer to home.

“I hope something can be done here in our state to prevent it from getting as bad as it has in some of the other states,” Ley said.

For more information regarding the issue of prescription drug abuse and prevention efforts in Ellis County, don’t miss the second part of this two-part series.