If you were paying attention to last year’s presidential campaign, it is likely you heard about the opioid epidemic. Candidates frequently referenced the topic when they talked about public health policies, and all of them often agreed that it is one of the biggest crises the country is currently facing. But what exactly is an opioid? And can we really categorize this situation as an epidemic?
If you’re not familiar with the word “opioid” by now, you’re probably more familiar with its other names such as Vicodin, Percocet, or Oxycontin. There are many other drugs that also fall under this category, as well as non-prescribed drugs like heroin. In other words, an opioid is often a strong painkiller or drug that’s used to turn off sensors in the brain to block pain.
So why are opioids considered an epidemic? Simply put, the numbers are alarming: Prescription and illegal opioids are killing as many people as the HIV/AIDs crisis in the 1990s. In 2015 alone, 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, and more than half of those deaths were linked to Fentanyl, Percocet, Oxycontin, and heroin. In fact, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and two thirds of those deaths are from opioids.
NPR recently followed Melissa Morris, a Colorado woman who serves as a perfect—and unfortunate—example of how and why this epidemic has spiraled out of control. Morris was given a prescription for opioids when she was twenty to relieve post-surgical pain following her daughter’s cesarean birth. After a few pills, she was immediately hooked.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my god. Is this legal? How can this feel so good?’” Morris recalls.
Like most people who take opioids every day, her tolerance built up, and she went from Vicodin to Percocet and then to Oxycontin. Doctors soon caught on to her scheme, and she was cut off prescription drugs. Morris says that it was then when she discovered heroin, because not only was it easily accessible, but it was cheaper and lasted longer.
Morris’ case perfectly illustrates why people in rural areas of the United States are usually more prone to opioid addiciton: a lack of access to alternative methods to relieve pain. Other suitable alternatives like physical therapy often aren’t available because of high prices and lack of medical infrastructure in rural places. Another reason opioids are more common in rural areas is because of the number of manual labor jobs in those regions, which eventually end up taking a toll on a person’s health, making them seek drugs to help alleviate the pain. Treatment for drug addiction is also limited in these areas, leaving people to wean off of it themselves, or be forced to drive hours for Buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid addiction.
For people that want to get better, there is already legislation that seeks to combat this disease. Last year, Congress passed the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act, which aims to improve drug prevention education and incentivize turning in unwanted prescription bottles. There is also medicated treatment, such as Naloxone, which is the leading anti-opioid overdose drug.
In addition to these steps that have already been taken to fight opioid addiction, there is also growing awareness about the issue among the public and politicians. And the more we learn about this epidemic, the more we can do to help improve the lives of those affected by it.
By: Molly Tracy