It may come as a surprise for some, but the United States has been suffering from an opioid epidemic since the 1990s. Since then, the number of deaths resulting from it have continued to increase. More than 42,249 people as a result of opioids in 2016. That is more than 115 deaths every day. Many argue that misinformation about this problem is bigger than the problem itself. So, what are opioids and how did this epidemic start?
Opioids are a group of various pain-relieving drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the cells of the human body. When these medications attach to the brain cells, the cells release signals that soften the perception of pain and boost feelings of pleasure. They can be made from the poppy plant, like Morphine, or synthesized in a laboratory, such as Fentanyl.
What makes opioids effective for treating pain is also what makes them dangerous. The epidemic started in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies promised that patients would not become addicted to their prescriptions. As a result, healthcare providers started to prescribe them at higher rates, which led to the spread of their misuse. When this happened, it became clear that people did in fact become highly dependent on them. According to The National Institute of on Drug Abuse, between 20 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them: they take more pills than prescribed, they take them from friends, the family medicine cabinet, or buy them from drug dealers. The worst part is that the likelihood of people wanting to use opioid painkillers for the long-term spikes after just five days of use.
You would think that because of opioids’ addictive properties, people would stop taking them. However, that is not easy for patients with permanent disabilities whose dosages have continued to rise. Moreover, the addiction can become worse. The NIH has stated that about 80 percent of people who use heroin had first misused prescription of opioids. This suggests that there is a high probability that the misuse of opioids can lead to heroin use.
Through the years, research has shown the serious harm that opioids have in the long term, adversely affecting the respiratory system, central nervous system, cardiovascular system and immune system. And of course, they can lead to death.
In 2017, President Donald J. Trump officially declared the U.S. opioid epidemic a public health emergency. In addition, a presidential commission was established to combat the crisis and introduced the death penalty for drug traffickers. Even though the United States is divided politically nowadays, battling this epidemic is a bipartisan issue, as it affects rural and urban areas in both red and blue states. This year, the Senate passed sweeping legislation on opioids with a nearly unanimous vote. It includes the creation and enforcement of programs across every federal agency to address multiple aspects of the epidemic.
Apart from their harmful consequences, it is true that opioids at lower doses are necessary for many. It is important to be informed about how to reduce the risk of their dangerous side effects by following the instructions doctors give and taking medication as prescribed. People must start realize how big the problem really is, specifically students, whose social behavior can also affect their potential misuse of these drugs.
“The crisis is affecting our public health as well as our social and economic welfare,” said Judy Salvatierra, a professor in the Social Sciences department at Wolfson Campus. “[We have to] become educated regarding the dangers of prescription opioids, dispose unused or expired opioids that you might have around your house and help reduce the stigma of substance abuse disorder.”