The Opioid Epidemic: A Deadly Issue
by David R
Over the past few decades, there has been a tremendous push in medical research that has created revolutionary treatments for all different kinds of cancer, HIV, and numerous other deadly diseases; however, one area where this push has been absent has been in the field of mental health. This has become apparent with the growing opioid epidemic in this country, which continues to claim countless lives on a daily basis. While many people believe that drug abuse and addiction is something that people bring on themselves, the reality is that addiction is a disease just like any other and should be treated as such. With this in mind, there are several facets to this issue that everyone needs to keep in mind.
The Opioid Epidemic: Understanding the Crisis
Year after year, the number of people who die from recreational drug use and drug overdose events continues to rise. It can happen to anyone, regardless of their background. The average person on the street can overdose on opioids, as can Tom Petty, who died of an opioid overdose and was subsequently found to have drugs such as fentanyl, oxycodone, and alprazolam in his system. While many people think that deaths related to drug use somehow involve illicit drug use, this doesn’t have to be true. Some people can overdose on medications that were generated by a prescription. It is important to note that just because a physician prescribes a medication doesn’t mean it is safe. On the contrary, this is why the medication requires a prescription in the first place. Those who are taking prescription medications should make sure to take them only as prescribed; varying from the instructions can have deadly consequences. Because of the rate of rise in opioid-related hospitalizations and deaths, it has become apparent that this continues to be a problem.
Opioid Crisis: By the Numbers
It is important to examine the crisis from an objective perspective to get a better handle on the scope and magnitude of the epidemic. Some important points include:
- Number of opioids: The majority of deaths related to a drug overdose involve an opioid. Six out of 10 deaths related to drug use involve an opioid.
- Rate of rise: Since 1999, deaths related to overdoses involving an opioid have quadrupled. This includes opioids such as heroin, but also prescription medications.
- Number of deaths: On average, close to 100 Americans die on a daily basis due to opioid overdose.
- Number of prescriptions: Since 1999, the number of prescription opioids that are being prescribed have also quadrupled. This has contributed to the opioid epidemic as well.
- Deaths from prescriptions: The number of deaths tied to prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and/or hydrocodone, have quadrupled since 1999 as well.
Clearly, these statistics are alarming and indicate that something needs to be done to address the growing crisis.
Why Are These Problems Present?
One of the first questions that people ask is why the opioid epidemic has developed now. There are a number of points about related opioid deaths that need to be addressed. One of the problems has been that more people are being prescribed opioid medications than ever before. Because of the number of opioid prescriptions, there is an increased opportunity for people to misuse opioids. Opioid misuse has been contributing to an increase in overdoses and deaths. Second, many of the illicit drugs that are being sold on the street are being cut with something called carfentanil. This is a strong synthetic of the prescription opioid fentanyl, used in the hospital setting for pain control and sedation. Carfentanil is significantly stronger than its cousin, fentanyl, and has been contributing to the rising rate of opioid deaths. Lastly, the rising rate of ancillary mental health issues, such as depression, has also been contributing to the opioid epidemic in this country. Aside from the ancillary issues discussed above, there is a massive economic cost as well.
The Economic Cost of the Opioid Epidemic
According to the 2016 NCHS Data Brief, the opioid epidemic has cost the country over 500 billion dollars. Where have the costs come from? There are several sources of costs. First, the people who overdose on opioids need to go to the hospital to seek medical care. Many times, they require resuscitative measures and, possibly, intubation in the ICU. This contributes to skyrocketing healthcare costs that drain the country’s already strained healthcare system. Many police officers have started to carry Narcan, also known as Naloxone, so that they can save the lives of people who overdose on medications on the street and require resuscitation.
What Has Been Done Thus Far?
A number of different measures have been implemented to try to address the growing opioid epidemic. In addition to law enforcement officers being trained to carry and use Narcan to assist people they find on the ground, the government has issued guidance to pharmaceutical and industry companies to help them try to manufacture medications that are resistant to abuse. Another measure implemented has been that physicians are now closely tracked regarding the prescriptions that they write for opioid medications. These can now only be written for a short, few-day supply and they must be printed as a hard copy. This presents the electronic forging of prescriptions and prevents physicians from prescribing these for long durations. Finally, pharmaceutical companies have generated a number of long-acting equivalents to older pain medications. Medications that act for longer durations wear off more slowly, and therefore are less likely to be abused.
More Must be Done
While these measures have been impressive, the opioid epidemic continues to grow. More people are overdosing and dying than ever before. While drug-related measures are important, it is necessary to address the crisis at its roots and ask why people are abusing these medications. There aren’t enough mental health resources in this country, and until these become more prevalent, people will continue to abuse these dangerous, powerful, and deadly pain medications. It will be interesting to see what measures are taken in the future.