August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day—a day dedicated to preventing drug overdose and remembering lives lost. Drug overdose is a problem every day of the year, but this is an opportunity to highlight a growing public health issue in the United States. We have all seen the news about skyrocketing overdose rates in recent years—in fact drug overdose has become the leading cause of injury death in the U.S.—but the origins of this health crisis and what we can do about it are less apparent. With opioid addiction at the core of the sharp rise in overdose deaths, we would like to present five lesser-known but critical facts about opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers and heroin:
1. The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid addiction epidemic. Opioids have caused the bulk of the country’s recent overdose deaths—more than 125,000 deaths in the U.S. in the past 10 years are attributable to prescription painkillers or heroin. The CDC calls the crisis the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
2. The over-prescribing of painkillers is at the root of the opioid crisis. Skyrocketing overdose rates parallel a 300 percent increase in the sale of prescription painkillers since 1999. Increased prescriptions mean more Americans are consuming these highly risky drugs. With only five percent of the world’s population, we now consume a whopping 84 percent of the world’s oxycodone and 99 percent of the hydrocodone supply. This trend has fueled spikes in addiction and overdose deaths. Many become addicted to the pills their doctor or dentist prescribed, while others, especially young people, abuse the painkillers they find in the medicine cabinet. Over 70 percent of people who used painkillers without a prescription got the drugs from friends or relatives, and 85 percent of those friends and relatives received the drugs from one or more doctors. Due in part to accessibility, prescription painkillers are the most commonly abused drug in the U.S. after alcohol and marijuana.
3. Prescription painkiller addiction has increased more sharply among women than men. While more men died from prescription painkiller overdose than women in 2010, opioids are a growing problem for women. Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses have risen 400 percent among women since 1999, compared with 265 percent among men.
4. We’re taking steps to combat the opioid crisis. While the impact of opioid addiction and overdose on communities across the U.S. has been devastating, several key actions demonstrate that progress is being made. First, we’re seeing increased access to naloxone, an opiate overdose antidote. Many police forces are being equipped with naloxone across the country and there is increased access for families of those struggling with opioid addiction. Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Administration recently ruled to reschedule hydrocodone combination drugs, a class of drugs that includes Vicodin, the most commonly prescribed painkiller in the U.S. We hope that stricter regulation of Vicodin and similar drugs will lead to more cautious prescribing and closer monitoring of patients—critical steps to contain this disease.
5. We’ve got to do more. Ending the opioid addiction epidemic requires a multifaceted approach. We need to treat people already struggling with heroin and prescription drug addiction and prevent more people from developing the disease to begin with. To do this, we must expand access to treatment, particularly in hard-hit, low-income areas. We must also encourage the medical community to prescribe addictive painkillers more cautiously so as not to addict patients directly or cause addiction indirectly by stocking medicine cabinets with a hazard.
By raising awareness about opioid addiction and overdose, we can begin to prevent new cases of addiction—and provide avenues for more people to get the treatment they need. For those seeking a way to help, join families, treatment organizations, and other advocates at the FED UP! Rally on September 28 in Washington D.C. to call for a federal response to this pressing problem. To join the conversation about drug overdose and follow the happenings of International Overdose Awareness Day on Twitter, search the hashtag #OD14 and follow @overdoseday.
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