Opioid abuse has become a significant issue in the US, with medical publication STAT predicting that the death toll from overdose could reach almost half a million people over the next ten years unless something is done to curb the epidemic.
As the crisis continues, there are almost 100 opioid-connected deaths every single day in America and if STAT’s predictions are accurate, this figure to rise to 250. If powerful synthetic opioids such as carfentanil and fentanyl continue to spread as rapidly as they have been, there is every reason to believe that the death toll over the next decade could top 650,000.
In other words, opioid abuse could kill almost as many Americans as breast and prostate cancer over the same time period.
These predictions are based on the current situation. In 2016, almost 64,000 people died of fatal overdoses in the US, many from prescription painkillers such as Percocet and OxyContin according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s startling to know that this is a higher death toll than deaths from guns, car crashes, and HIV/AIDS in one year and a bigger loss of life than all US military casualties in the Iraq and Vietnam wars combined.
The Origins of the Opioid Crisis
Many people believe that the opioid crisis has risen so fast in America is because it is easier to get high than it is to get help. Over the last ten years, there has been a big increase in the production of opioid-based painkillers by pharmaceutical companies and the US market has now become flooded with potentially addictive painkillers.
Seeing the potential for profit, illicit drug traffickers were quick to follow suit by developing synthetic opioids like heroin and cocaine. This meant that once people had run out of painkillers on prescription or were looking for stronger effects, opioids were readily available through illicit channels.
In many cases, people start taking opioid-based painkillers for legitimate reasons which are usually chronic pains. If their pain is a result of serious injury, it can often mean they will be prescribed opioids for pain-relief for prolonged periods of time. The effects of drugs are lessened over time as the body becomes used to its influence, a circumstance known as tolerance, which can lead to people seeking other ways of increasing their dose of illicit opioid use.
A Widespread Epidemic in the US
As the opioid crisis has developed, a rising number of users have ‘graduated’ to heroin abuse, perhaps the most dangerous illicit drug in America. According to a study by medical journal Addictive Behaviors, 51.9% of people entering opiate addiction treatment in 2015 started with prescription drugs, with 33.3% with heroin.
The report goes on to reveal that although the number of people abusing prescription drugs was slightly down, the difference is almost completely mitigated by a similar increase in those using heroin.
Synthetic opioids like heroin and fentanyl pose a bigger threat than prescription painkillers. Heroin is considered one of the most potent illicit drugs although fentanyl is even stronger than heroin and both are routinely mixed with other chemicals, some of which are toxic. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of buying illicit opioids is that it is not possible to gauge exactly what is being purchased, making the risk of overdose much higher.
There is an age divide in the epidemic that shows how opioid use is now straddling all demographic groups in America. Prescription opioid abuse is more prevalent in older Americans of 40+ and heroin and fentanyl abuse more likely to hit younger adults in their 20s to mid-30s.
Although the stats are alarming, the real depth of the opioid crisis remains unknown because the numbers are obscured by the other negative effects aside from death which include things like a hindered social function through, relationship issues or financial problems. Although there are around 2.1 million people currently known to be using opioids, experts widely agree that this figure is an underestimate.
What Is Being Done About It?
In response to the rising opioid crisis, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has sharpened its focus to address what it considers to be five major priorities:
- Improved access to rehabilitation and recovery
- Promotion of the use of overdose-reversing drugs
- Increased understanding of the issue through better public health surveillance
- More support for research into pain management and addiction
- Ensuring better pain management practices among health professionals
America’s leading medical research firm, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of the HHS are also addressing the opioid crisis by exploring partnerships with research centers to accelerate progress. The intention is to develop the following three core areas:
- Alternative strategies for pain management that are safe, effective and non-addictive
- New innovations in technologies that can be used to treat opioid-related disorders
- Improved mechanisms for overdose prevention and interventions to save more lives
Whatever the origins of opioid abuse are in individual cases, specialist treatment in an opiate addiction treatment center is always recommended. Because of the drug’s powerful influence on the brain’s function, suddenly stopping using it can cause some serious side effects; some can even be life-threatening. At an opiate addiction treatment center, supervised detox is offered ahead of a rehabilitation and recovery program and patients are able to receive treatment for any distressing side-effects as and when they present. It is always important to remember that people recover from opioid addiction all the time and with great success.
Although it is true that opiate abuse has become a national epidemic, by improving our understanding of its impact on society we can find the weapons to combat it.