The Opiod Epidemic: A continuing serious national problem

In my previous article on the Opioid Epidemic, re: Sunday, May 8th, 2016, I brought to your attention the most serious problem of opioid/heroin use and abuse; and the countless numbers of our citizenry (both children and adults) that perish as a result of overdose on these chemical substances. With the national news presently drawing more attention to this, and with new statistics in, I am expanding in this article to further address this dire problem now facing our Valley communities, our State, and our Nation.

As of this writing, the abuse, addiction, and overdose on Opioids in this country continues to grow at a very alarming rate. Of the 500,000 people who died of drug overdoses between 2000 to 2014; a record 47,000 in 2014 alone, 6 out of 10 of those deaths involved Opioids. The rate of Heroin abuse has skyrocketed.

The rate of heroin-related deaths alone increased 286 percent between 2002 and 2013 – in 2002, 100 people per 100,000 were addicted to heroin but that number had doubled by 2013…and the numbers continue to grow. But Heroin is not solely the biggest problem; prescription opioids are also part and parcel of this epidemic.

According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abuse of prescription painkillers (primarily Upload prescriptions) is now incredibly common — one in 20 Americans age 12 and older reported using painkillers for non-medical reasons in the past year.

The number of overdose deaths from prescription pain medication is larger than those of Heroin and Cocaine combined. The recent deaths reported nationally that took place in New Haven, Connecticut, on June 24th; wherein more than 16 deaths were reported within a night, were most probably attributed to the synthetic opioid Fentanyl; and which is but a microcosm of what is occurring across our nation.

Although the rates of Upload abuse, addiction, and overdose have continued to increase over the last decade; our government reaction to it has been extremely slow to respond; and really offer too little too late…not catching the eyes of the White House until the end of April of this year, wherein the President released a plan to pour $5 million into combating heroin use and trafficking…following years of warnings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the explosion in heroin use in the United States.

Also earlier in the Spring, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that they had awarded $94 million to 271 health centers in an effort mainly to increase access to medication-assisted treatment for Upload abuse and addiction. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHA) also announced that they will be awarding another $11 million to as many as 11 states to help provide medication-assisted treatment as well.

The recent grants allocated by the Judiciary Committee of Congress allocates $103 million annually over the next 5 years. These numbers may appear huge to you, but considering the vastness of the problem, and the trickle down of funds to our states, territories, and communities; the numbers are but a “drop in the bucket.” Besides, most of the monies provided are really “after the fact;” such as use for the antagonist medication Naltraxone, which counteracts the chemical effects of the opioid and used in emergency room treatment for overdose (this is not to say that this is most important), when more should be allocated to prevention efforts, and the development of new and innovative programs for prevention and treatment; with emphasis on our youth so they may not be abusers or become addictive in the first place.

Response to the epidemic and associated government action was given by the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, in a statement concerning opioid prescriptions to physicians and medical students at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, on June 23rd, wherein he stated “the path to solving the country’s opioid epidemic is an opportunity to recast addiction as an illness rather than a crime in many cases and to find efficient ways to treat pain.” He also stated in his address, “Clinicians can shape the way the country thinks about addiction by changing the way they talk among themselves and to patients about opioids and addiction.”

It is my contention that this is only a part of what needs to be done. Our nation needs to take conservative, non-liberal logical action towards substance abuse in Toto; and primarily in awareness education in traditional and non-traditional family settings. I believe the changing values taking place in our society are most negative and are contributors to not only the opioid epidemic, but most other problematic areas with our society, to include gun violence.

Just what are Opioids? Opioids are a class of drugs derived from the Opium secretion of the Scarlet Poppy Plant bulbs; broken down into primarily Morphine, Heroin, Codeine, Hydrocodone, and Oxycodone (this does not include the synthetic opioid, Fentanyl which is 50 times stronger than Heroin). Opium is a narcotic (from the Greek word Narcosis, sleep producing)…in the Depressant Drug Class, who’s properties also alleviate pain).

Most of the opium comes from Turkey, where the Scarlet Poppy has its origins, but is also now grown in other areas of the world as well. Narcotic drugs have also been laboratory synthesized into other drugs as well. Opioids are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system to produce pleasurable effects and relieve pain. Opioids are highly addictive…Addiction is a primary, chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Of the 21.5 million Americans 12 and older that had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014.

These rates have quadrupled within the past decade, and are still growing in numbers as I write this article. This epidemic has raised a red flag for my colleagues and I over the past 2 decades, and we have been most involved from the community to the national level in bringing this to the attention of our different governmental bodies; and it is just within the last few months that it has been publically acknowledged by the current administration.

I have written many articles on the opioid epidemic, bringing the seriousness of it to our readers…the problem is like that proverbial “elephant in the living room.”

Of primary concern is the number of adolescents, ages 12-17 who currently use pain relievers. In 2014, there were 467,000 adolescents who were current nonmedical users of pain reliever, with 168,000 having an addiction to prescription pain relievers. That same year, an estimated 28,000 adolescents had used heroin in the past year, and an estimated 16,000 were current heroin users. Additionally, an estimated 18,000 adolescents had a heroin use disorder. Within the past decade, the rates for prescription opioids among adolescents has doubled.

But most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers are given them for free by a friend or relative. What is really sad in my eyes are the increasing number of our youth who have overdosed on heroin and other opioids…their deaths seem so senseless and unnecessary.

I realize that I have thrown a lot of statistics at you in this article, and that most are only representative through the year 2014; yet it makes us aware of the vastness of the problem of opioid use, abuse, addiction, and overdose. When the 2015 statistics are made available, I am sure that you will be equally shocked by the numbers.

Substance abuse, whether it be from licit or illicit drugs is a serious problem in our society, and has been so since the 1970’s…there seems to be no answer to the problem as of yet. I know that those in the addictions field of our Valley communities are doing the best they can with the tools they have, and I applaud them for that. With so little funding trickling down to our communities for treatment (and preventative efforts) for persons with substance abuse and mental illness disorders, it is simply amazing that they do so much.

What are you doing to make a difference? Until next time, Stay Healthy my Friends!