The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report Tuesday outlining the growing severity of the nation’s opioid epidemic. The report showed that opioid overdoses raised 30 percent from 2016 to 2017. The report focused on data from the third quarter of 2016 to the third quarter of 2017 which tracked the number of emergency room visits for opioid overdoses. These numbers may be deceiving however as it is unknown how many unreported opioid overdoses there were in the county by those who never ended up in the emergency room. Nonetheless, these numbers show a disturbing trend in the continually worsening opioid epidemic which has been under the microscope for some time now.
Data in the report by the CDC also broke down the opioid overdose numbers by region, which show that the problem seems to be the most prevalent in the Northeast, Midwest and the West. The number of opioid overdoses per 10,000 emergency room visits in these regions were all above 20, all which represent significant increases since 2016. Even in regions where the overdoses were fewer per 10,000 emergency room visits, such as the Southeast and Southwest, these regions also experienced a significant increase from the previous year.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this new report is the fact that these opioid overdoses are continuing to be more common in essentially every region of the country despite widespread agreement among politicians, lawmakers, doctors and substance abuse treatment professionals that we are in the midst of an opioid epidemic. From Washington all the way down to the state and local level, officials are scrambling to assess the situation and quickly implement laws and policies aimed at curbing the public health crisis but as of yet nothing has seemed to have a significant impact. Still, data continues to come to light showing just how severe the opioid crisis is and that something needs to be done.
We are in the midst of an epidemic
While fatal opioid overdoses have risen for all forms of opiates, including heroin, most experts point to prescription opioids as the biggest factor in the recent rise of opiate addiction across the country. Prescription opioids like oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) are often the first step people take on a perilous journey into opiate addiction. Whether obtained legally in the form of a prescription from a doctor, or from the medicine cabinet of a family member or a close friend, these powerful pain killing medications have a very high potential for addiction and are widely prescribed across the country.
The abundance of these addictive opioids, as well as the ease in which they can be acquired, has gradually placed more and more Americans into situations where they find themselves helplessly addicted to prescription opiates. After more than three decades of widespread prescribing of these medications, it is estimated that over 2 million Americans now regularly use some form of opiate. In fact, while the United States only has around 4.4 percent of the total global population it is estimated that we use around 80 percent of the total opioid supply in the world. This single figure alone highlights how dependent our society has become on pain killing medications.
The problem which led from widespread use of opioids to a full blown opioid crisis has to do with just how addictive these substances can be. Not only do prescription opioids have the potential to cause serious physical dependence, which can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms if someone stops taking them, but they can also be extremely psychologically addictive. Many times, after a person either takes prescription opioids for either a legitimate medical condition or recreationally after getting them from a friend or family member, they can become addicted. After the prescription runs out many times people will turn to street drugs like heroin to continue to feed their addiction because often times it is not only easier to acquire but cheaper as well.
The continued widespread use of these prescription opioids is essentially creating more addicts with every passing day. Unfortunately, the way that out healthcare system is currently constructed, it is much easier to become addicted to opioids than it is to be successfully treated for an addiction to them. This, which is the crux of the issue in the overall opioid crisis, has been going on for over a decade and leaves us where we are today; Millions of Americans struggling with an addiction to opioids without widespread access to treatment. It is because of this fact that people are dying, because the sad fact about opioid addiction is that when left untreated it is often times fatal.
Why these numbers may be underestimating opioid overdoses
While these numbers are alarming enough on their own, most experts agree that they are not painting the entire picture. The issue is that it is extremely difficult to know the actual number of opioid overdoses across the country because a portion of them go unreported. People who experience non-fatal opioid overdoses often times do not report them to anyone. Even fatal opioid overdoses can go misreported if there were other circumstances which may have also contributed to the death. What is certain is that there are more opioid overdoses occurring than just the ones that are ending up in emergency rooms, what is uncertain is exactly how many of them there are.
Some estimates say that the number of reported overdoses could be less than half the actual amount, meaning the opioid epidemic is potentially twice as severe as any of these current studies are suggesting. This is causing a few problems. First of all, while the opioid crisis has certainly become a huge talking point, more distressing reports on the total number of opioid overdoses could potentially force public officials to act faster than they currently are to put in place changes which could potentially help solve this issue. The other major factor is the fact that even for changes that are occurring, these artificially low numbers of opioid overdoses could potentially lead to underfunding of these programs. If no one truly knows the scope of the opioid epidemic then it is going to be difficult to adequately fund it, even if the proper solutions are agreed upon.
Are we doing enough to stop opioid overdoses?
If this CDC report tells us anything, it is that we still have a long way to go before we can comfortably say we are doing enough to solve the problem. While there have been some recent attempts to work towards resolving the public health crisis, particularly aimed at reducing the number of opioid overdoses, if this data is any indication the new policies are not working.
Some of the most widespread actions that have been implemented in many parts of the country are the deregulation and increased availability of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. Naloxone has been a large part of much of the current push to combat the opioid crisis as it can work extremely well at saving the life of an individual who is experiencing an opioid overdose. Previously this drug was only available in a medical setting but in the past few years it has become available to most first responders, who carry it in case they come across an overdose victim. It is also available over the counter at pharmacies and needle exchanges in may parts of the country. The hope is that making the drug more widely available will mean that it is used to save the lives of those who would have potentially died without naloxone being administered.
While the intent to save the lives of those who are suffering from an opioid overdose is certainly a noble one, the issue is that the origin of the problem isn’t being addressed. Those who are struggling with addiction to opiates need substance abuse treatment programs to change their lives. Simply saving them from dying during an overdose doesn’t solve the issue that most people will go back to using opiates afterwards. While data on this issue isn’t currently available, most experts suspect that a significant number of people who end up in the emergency room for an opioid overdose have experienced multiple other instances of overdose. Addiction is a disease which does not allow those suffering from it to simply stop using on their own will-power. Even something as serious as a near-death experience is not necessarily enough to help someone stop. Instead, recovery is truly successful only when someone is able to get help from professionals in the field of addiction treatment at programs like inpatient and outpatient drug rehabs.
A path forward
It is certainly clear that the opioid epidemic is something that needs to be fixed, sooner rather than later. The real path forward however includes a multitude of solutions all working together and not one simple and quick fix. Unfortunately, because the disease of addiction is at the core of the problem, the solution is not going to be simple. What we really need is much easier access to treatment for those who are struggling with addiction. Currently, there is a high need for state-funded treatment centers that are available to help those who do not have the financial means or private health insurance to cover the cost of a private substance abuse treatment facility. While most states do have a handful of these programs, the currently inadequate funding for them means that they do not have enough available beds and therefore have waiting lists that can be months long. Opening up more funding for the expansion of these treatment centers would mean that more beds were available, potentially ending the existence of these long waiting lists.
Another issue that arises when it comes to treating opioid addicts is the fact that some of them don’t necessarily want help, even after they experience an overdose. In these cases, changes in the legal and law enforcement system can be beneficial. There are many counties in the country that now have robust drug court systems which essentially give people the option of either going to jail or treatment. These have seen varying levels of success, but for the most part they have shown promise as a part of the solution to the issue.
The most important thing to understand is that solutions like these, along with many others, are the best way forward. There is no one magic bullet that is going to solve the problem, the issue is complex and multifaceted. A real solution, one which considerably reduces the number of Americans who are struggling and dying from the disease of addiction, is going to take the cooperation of all aspects of our culture and society.