News Release

University of Kentucky studies: Opioid overdose deaths increase among black individuals

Business Announcement

University of Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 6, 2021) — Recent studies by the University of Kentucky's HEALing Communities Study (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) researchers show a notable rise in opioid overdose death rates among non-Hispanic Black individuals.

Opioid overdose death rates increased by 40% among non-Hispanic Black individuals between 2018 and 2019, despite having leveled off overall, according to study results published in the American Journal of Public Health this September.

The death rate trends were determined using data from 67 communities disproportionately affected by opioid overdose, which represent 8.3 million individuals in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio.

Another UK study published in JAMA this July found that the increase in opioid overdose death rates among Black individuals continued over the next year, rising 57% in Kentucky from 2019-2020.

Historically, opioid overdose death rates have been disproportionately higher among white individuals. The new shifting demographics are shaping the way UK’s HEALing Communities Study (HCS) research team is helping to address the opioid epidemic in Kentucky, says Sharon Walsh, Ph.D., the principal investigator for UK's HCS and director of UK’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.

“The data are being used to help inform communities about evidence-based practices proven to reduce opioid overdose,” said Walsh. “The HCS team is developing and implementing more culturally tailored interventions to reach communities of color in Kentucky, which face additional barriers to accessing treatment.”

This includes outreach events in Black communities, which include overdose education and distribution of naloxone — a life-saving, highly effective medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

The JAMA study also reports a significant increase in drug overdose mortality across all demographic groups in Kentucky in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The UK study was released before the CDC released their provisional 2020 estimates.

“Kentucky has one of the most timely drug overdose surveillance data collection and reporting in the U.S. and the UK research team has been on the front line, informing other practitioners and researchers about changing trends in non-fatal and fatal drug overdoses,” said study co-author Svetla Slavova, Ph.D., associate professor in the UK College of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics and faculty member in the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center

Funded by the National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the HCS aims to significantly reduce opioid overdose deaths by helping communities implement evidence-based practices to treat opioid use disorder and reduce harms from opioid use. Learn more at

Research reported in this publication was supported by funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Award Number 6 NU17CE924971-02-01, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Award Number HHSF223201810183C under Broad Agency Announcement Number 17-00123, and by the National Institutes of Health through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative under Award Numbers UM1DA049406, UM1DA049412, UM1DA049415, UM1DA049417 and UM1DA049394. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the National Institutes of Health. 

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers."  We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.

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