There has been a lot of focus recently on the growing “opioid epidemic” in the United States – from politicians talking about how best to solve this serious problem to television networks featuring programs about this important health and social issue.
As the name implies, opioids are drugs derived from opium. They act on the nervous system to relieve pain, but continued use and abuse can lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Most such as OxyContin, Oxycodone, Percodan and Tylenol with Codeine are legal, with a prescription. Some, like heroin are illegal.
The statistics on opioid and other drug abuse in the local area are both surprising and staggering. For example, in Hernando County in 2015, toxicology reports at the time of death showed most of the drugs were found in people over the age of fifty. From 2014 through 2016, the most common calls to poison control were for exposure from analgesics (painkillers). Surprisingly, street drugs were much farther down on the list. One in four babies born in Hernando County in 2016 suffered from withdrawal from prescription or illegal drugs.
Danish Hasan is a graduate of Springstead High School and just recently graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Health. He and a team of AmeriCorps Vista volunteers have been involved for the past eight weeks in a program underwritten by a research grant. They developed an alliance with the Hernando County Anti-Drug Coalition (HCCADC), the Sheriff’s Office, Crescent Community Clinic and medical health professionals to try and do something about this serious problem. In this very short period of time they have accomplished a lot.
They researched four initiatives that have been effective in other areas of the country and could work locally, also: developing a training program for physicians, developing a needle exchange program, distribution of naloxone [a “rescue shot” that can bring someone back from an overdose] and awareness of the Baker Act.”
Hasan comments, “Besides seeking media attention for our efforts, we have taken time to present at meetings, such as the meeting for the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition and have reached out to stakeholders in the community, such as the Sheriff’s office, Oak Hill Hospital, and the County Commission.”
Now that the grant period is over, Hasan and his team plan to turn their efforts toward Hillsborough County and and an even wider focus. They plan to launch a social media campaign and and a website which will enhance awareness of the epidemic, capture the stories of individuals facing opioid addiction and connect with medical professionals.
“Engaging elected officials by actively lobbying and developing a network of researchers at the University of South Florida, as well as establishing a student organization there to mimic our efforts, are all goals that we would like to see to completion. The opioid epidemic is arguably the largest public health crisis facing our nation,”Hasan states.
The group has already established a new organization based in the Tampa/USF area called Tampa’s Opioid Research Network (TORN). Their website is https://www.tampasopioidresearch.net/
Locally, the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition and Crescent Community Clinic have “boots on the ground.” Although, there is no needle exchange program here yet, they are fighting this ever-increasing problem by every means possible.
Tresa Watson, Executive Director of HCCADC states, “HCCADC is a highly active, data-driven organization committed to reducing the problems of drug abuse, addiction and related social issues in Hernando County in order to create a safe, healthy, and drug free community for all.”
Why is there an opioid epidemic and why are more people dying from drug overdoses? There are several reasons.
First of all, doctors have been writing more and more prescriptions for painkillers. In 2015 the rate of of prescriptions written in Hernando County per every 1,000 residents was 1,240. That is above every person in the county receiving a prescription in the year! Deduct children under the age of twelve and it is even more alarming. People are requesting painkillers for a host of reasons and some doctors do not check their patients out thoroughly to see if they really need them or if drugs are the best course of treatment. Some people are abusing these painkillers and becoming addicted, using them to get high or selling them.
Due to this over-prescribing of painkillers, the government and insurance companies started making it harder for people to obtain prescriptions, even those who are using the drugs for legitimate reasons and not abusing them. This has led to people buying illegal drugs, like heroin, for their pain. These illegal drugs are stronger and more addictive. They are not quality-controlled like prescription drugs and are sometimes laced with other more harmful substances.
In May of this year Governor Rick Scott signed an executive order declaring a public health “state of emergency” in Florida due to the opioid epidemic. This term is usually reserved for natural disasters like hurricanes. The emergency order will allow the state to receive more than $27 million in federal funding.
Money will surely help the problem, but it isn’t the only answer. It will require wide-spread changes in attitude about how best to treat pain, how to deal with people who are already addicted and how to prevent recreational drug use.
According to http://opioid.amfar.org/ in 2016, 87.85% of those in Hernando County who needed treatment for drug addiction were not receiving it.
Another possible solution to helping those who are already addicted to illegal opioids is needle exchange programs. According to a September 5, 2016 New York Times article needle exchange programs have several benefits. Michael Botticelli, director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy was quoted in the article: “Syringe exchange programs reduce not only infectious disease but also create an opportunity for people to get the care and provide a transition into treatment for people in the community.” These programs have shown that they do not increase drug use, either. Florida is just starting to get needle exchange programs in place in some areas, but Hernando county isn’t one of them.
The opioid epidemic is not going to go away by itself. It may even get worse here in Hernando County as our population increases. It is safe to say that almost everyone has been affected by this problem. Either a friend or relative has had opioid dependency issues or perhaps even died from a drug overdose.
Initiatives such as the ones being put forth by the Hernando County Community Anti-Drug Coalition, the Crescent Community Clinic and the AmeriCorps Vista volunteers need the support of the whole community.
For more information on HCCADC log onto http://hernandocommunitycoalition.org/about.html or call 352-596-8000. Like their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/HCCADC.
For more information on Crescent Community Clinic go to http://www.crescentclinic.org/index1.html or call 352- 610-9916. The clinic’s Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/CrescentCommunityClinic