by David Heitz
Remember when most of America thought heroin addiction only happened to people with a long history of drug abuse?
We looked at heroin addiction as though it simply was the culmination of years of experimenting with other drugs. Until recently, many of us thought it only happened to lost, impoverished souls, and in places like Skid Row.
Are you kidding?
It happens to doctors in Orange County, pilots in Los Angeles, and yes, impoverished people on Skid Row.
A soccer mom anywhere can become a heroin addict after being prescribed painkillers for a surgery. High school athletes can, too, and they do. Quite a bit, in fact.
Now our country understands that heroin actually is just a dangerous painkiller usually delivered with a needle. That Vicodin you take today after something as simple as a dental procedure can eventually lead to a needle loaded with heroin going into your vein.
Given that truth, imagine the angst of a person dependent on heroin. Many, if not most, initially received a painkiller prescription from a doctor that ultimately led them down the road to heroin.
And now we expect them to turn to the medical establishment again for help? And accept being called “an addict,” when all they were doing was following doctor’s orders, likely never warned of the risk?
For addiction to opioids like heroin, a professional rehabilitation center truly is the only safe place to seek help. Heroin addiction is a serious medical condition. Abrupt discontinuation of opioids without medical supervision can result in death.
The good news is that doctors, policymakers and even politicians are waking up to the plight of those addicted to heroin. They understand they need to do their part to help America recover from the heroin epidemic, too. They know the addicted, whose lives are in danger, are the last people to blame.
Number dying from drug overdose has quadrupled
Statistics regarding heroin addiction are so staggering, Americans largely have become numb to them. But for each number, the story of someone we know is attached, or soon will be. When the number is given a face, everything changes.
Consider this data provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
More than four times as many people are dying of drug overdose today than in 1999. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from overdose, usually opioids like oxycodone, hydrocodone, heroin and methadone. (1)
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services put the number of total deaths caused by opioids in general to more than 33,000 in an April 2017 news release. (2)
“This alarming statistic is unacceptable to me,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Tom Price said.
The statistic was pegged to President Trump’s creation of his Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and The Opioid Crisis. More than half a billion dollars in grants has been promised to all 50 states.
Price has dubbed the opioid epidemic as one of his department’s top three priorities.
The CDC estimates that 91 people every day die of overdose, usually from opioids like heroin. However, those are 2015 numbers. The problem now seems far more explosive than that, with some cities now recording double-digit overdose deaths every day.
Earlier this year, Louisville, Ken. recorded 40 overdoses in one day, one fatal, USA Today reported. (3) And while even one death destroys multiple lives, the others lived because naloxone kits – which bring those who overdose back from the brink – increasingly are being made available to first responders and even the general public.
Naloxone works by shutting off the receptors that allow the opioids to go to work in the brain and slow down breathing.
In a world where the heroin scourge wants to destroy lives, the good news is that America is fighting back. Saving people from heroin is anything but a lost cause.
Heroin epidemic a matter of public health
Among young adults ages 18 to 25, more than twice as many people are using heroin than 10 years ago. Most of them also are using other drugs, according to the CDC.
However, heroin use has increased among all age groups. Elderly people prescribed painkillers for bone and joint pain can even end up addicted to heroin if they know where to find it.
“Some of the greatest increases occurred in demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use: Women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes,” the CDC reports.
Nearly all people who use heroin use other drugs, too, according to the CDC. People who use cocaine are 15 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.
It’s an epidemic so profoundly dangerous and denigrating to our society, many are reacting out of fear-based ignorance.
Because most people addicted to heroin inject it, there is a tremendous risk of the addicted contracting chronic illnesses passed on needles. Those illnesses include HIV, Hepatitis C, and sometimes even both.
HIV is manageable with lifelong medication. Hepatitis C, a once-deadly liver disease, is now curable with the same. However, the medications for both illnesses bear a whopping financial burden.
The public health ramifications of opioid addiction go far beyond the deadly risks associated with addiction itself, such as overdose. The introduction of the needle has disastrous public health ramification.
Consider Scott County, Indiana, where one wave of a drug shared by multiple people with one needle created the most alarming HIV/Hepatitis C infection ripple effect the country ever has seen.
In an exclusive interview with the website HIV Equal last year, that state’s director of public health declined to state the cost associated with the epidemic. Indiana did participate in Medicaid expansion, and most of the 190 people infected with HIV in the community of 4,000 are insured under the state-funded Healthy Indiana program. (4)
Two years ago, the Indiana News and Tribune estimated the cost at least $58 million and growing. (5)
For those addicted to heroin who also have contracted these diseases – and there are many – so much hope lies where there once was just fear. The fact that people with these illnesses can now live normal lifespans gives even more reason to recover and reclaim one’s life.
Without treatment, heroin leads addicted to the grave
There is only one ending for people addicted to heroin who don’t seek help. It’s a reality as sure as death itself. Every time someone ends up in the ER due to overdose, there’s a chance they may never come out alive.
An even more shocking reality is that parents of college-aged students may never know their child ended up in an emergency room due to overdose. That’s because of HIPAA privacy laws.
For the parent of a child who perhaps just went off to college, and stumbled upon painkillers being mixed with booze at parties, this is a very real and very difficult situation. The slope is slippery, and no parent wants to think their child is becoming a drug addict. Such thoughts, unfortunately, are pushed aside far too often when parents suspect something isn’t right when junior comes home for holiday break.
And the reason parents push such thoughts aside are the same reasons the addicts themselves push them aside.
Nobody wants to think themselves or a loved one are facing a life and death situation for which they need treatment.
And nobody wants their friends or family to know they are going into rehab, or that someone they love needs drug treatment. The stigma is too great.
And yet the stigma of addiction, and the failure of the loved ones of the addicted to confront it, is why nearly 100 people per day continue to die of overdose.
It’s a cycle that ends the very second addicted people admit they need treatment, and their loved ones support them on their path to recovery.
1. Drug overdose deaths in the United States continue to increase in 2015. (2017, Aug. 30). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html
2. Trump Administration awards grants to states to combat opioid crisis. (2017, April 19). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2017, from https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/04/19/trump-administration-awards-grants-states-combat-opioid-crisis.html
3. One day, 1 city: 43 overdoses, 1 death. (2017, Feb. 10). USA Today. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/02/10/heroin-epidemic-overdoses/97745102/
4. Heitz, David. (2016, April 13). Indiana Department of Public Health spokesperson gives HIV Equal’s David Heitz exclusive interview. HIV Equal. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2017, from http://www.hivequal.org/hiv-equal-online/exclusive-hiv-equal-s-david-heitz-interviews-indiana-public-affairs-about-hiv-emergency-needle-exchange-program
5. Hayden, Maureen. (2015, Dec. 17). HIV Outbreak Costs State $58 million. Indiana News and Tribune. Retrieved Sept. 9, 2017, from http://www.newsandtribune.com/news/hiv-outbreak-costs-state-million/article_189054a4-a45f-11e5-964a-c39db793576d.html