If you’re hoping that our efforts to alleviate the opioid epidemic have borne fruit, a new study released by the CDC suggests that opioid overdoses are actually on the rise. So how bad is opioid abuse getting? And is there anything we can do about this ongoing problem?
Genesis Of a Nationwide Opioid Crisis
Once upon a time, there was a medication called OxyContin launched by a pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma. And that medication is largely cited as the inciting incident when it comes to the opioid epidemic.
In the 1990s — which is when Purdue launched OxyContin — there hadn’t been a pain medication quite as powerful as OxyContin to reach such wide audiences. Whereas most such medications were quite limited and highly regulated, physicians and healthcare providers were motivated to prescribe OxyContin by a number of Purdue Pharma’s incentives. As a result, more and more people received prescriptions for the powerful narcotic painkiller. Inevitably, many of these individuals began either abusing these drugs or developed physical dependence by merely using them as prescribed for a prolonged period of time.
By the time we’d reached the mid-2000s, painkiller addiction was nearly epidemic-level proportions, resulting in many public officials and lawmakers searching for solutions. Eventually, they opted to increase the regulations surrounding OxyContin and the numerous other popular prescription painkillers that had emerged re-emerged at this time, including Percocet and Vicodin. But since there were so many people already suffering from painkiller addiction, the sudden shortage of painkillers resulted in many of them turning to heroin, which was easier to obtain, less costly than painkillers, and even more potent.
We soon realized that by using legislature and polity to mitigate the painkiller abuse problem, painkiller abusers were inadvertently directed to a substance that would come to pose an even worse problem. In fact, heroin abuse and addiction continue to be one of the biggest problems we face on a global scale, particularly as heroin abuse and overdose deaths increase year over year.
CDC Estimates 30% Increase In Opioid Overdoses
Among the many researchers and academic institutes observing trends in substance abuse, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention — also known simply as the CDC — has kept a close eye on the heroin situation in the United States. With so many new initiatives and strategies being continually put into place, one might assume that we’d see a decrease in heroin use or, at the very least, a plateau, meaning that rates of heroin abuse and overdose neither increase nor decrease. Unfortunately, it seems that, in spite of our best efforts, heroin use continues to be on the rise.
To best understand the CDC’s results, we need to take a moment to review the previous year’s findings. From 2015 to 2016, the CDC observed a 27.7 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths nationwide. Although it’s not the news we wanted, it shows us what kind of changes we’re seeing in opioid use in general. But more specifically, some of the areas with the most significant increases were coastal regions of the U.S. This is important as it starkly contrasts with the CDC’s more recent analysis.
According to the CDC, between July 2016 and September 2017, there were over 142,000 emergency room visits in 52 jurisdictions in 45 states that were suspected to involve opioid overdoses. For each quarter of the year, there was an average increase of 5.6 percent in opioid-related emergency room visits in each of the 52 jurisdictions. When you look at the five different regions of the U.S., the regions that saw the biggest increases — between 7 percent and 11 percent in opioid-related emergency room visits — were the Southwest, Midwest, and West.
This is quite revealing as it suggests that, while previous years have seen the most severe areas for opioid use along the East Coast, we’re now seeing greater severity in Southern, Central, and Western areas of the United States. We know this because every region has reported higher numbers than in previous years, which implies that the regions with lower opioid overdose rates in previous years are starting to catch up.
Overall, the CDC reports another annual increase in opioid overdose deaths of roughly 30 percent. Additionally, although there have been a few smaller locales to report a decline in opioid presence, the majority of the U.S. — particularly the more populated areas — have exhibited a notable increase, which was attributed to the 30-percent increase nationwide.
As far as region-to-region increases, the biggest annual increase by a significant margin was the Midwest. In fact, the Midwest saw a year-over-year increase in opioid overdoses by 69.7 percent. This large jump is largely because the state of Wisconsin saw a 109-percent increase from the previous year. And while this is certainly the most severe increase, there are other areas of the U.S. where similar increases have been detected.
According to acting CDC Director Anne Schuchat, “We have an emergency on our hands.”
Is There Anything We Can Do?
The fact that opioid overdoses continue to increase prompts some important questions: What’s is it that’s still causing opioid use to increase? And is there anything that can be done?
In addition to heroin still being readily available, there are still new opioid medications being released all the time. Just as OxyContin was an incredibly potent painkiller for the 1990s, these new substances are, likewise, extremely powerful and highly addictive. With more addictive substances being available, it follows that some of these drugs would be diverted and abused by recreational drug users.
But the big question that many have about the current state of opioid use is what can be done to alleviate this issue. Unfortunately, there’s no realistic way to immediately end the opioid epidemic as heroin is a substance that’s brought into the U.S. by cartels and through other unofficial means, so there’s little to no control over it. What we can do, though, is better educate the general public about substance abuse, addiction, and recovery.