According to a 2018 poll conducted by the American Psychiatry Association, nearly one out of three Americans knows someone addicted to opioids. The CDC reports that 130 Americans die of opioid overdoses every day. The opioid crisis has cost the United States over $1 trillion dollars since 2001, and that burden is projected to continue increasing yearly.
It’s clear that the opioid epidemic is majorly impacting individuals and our country overall in a devastating way. What led up to this situation, and how is it affecting us locally in Georgia? Perhaps most importantly, how can it be fixed?
History of the Opioid Overdose Crisis
The opioid crisis, also frequently called the opioid epidemic, refers to the large number of people who are addicted to prescription drugs such as pain killers, “street drugs” such as heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl, or both. Anyone addicted to or misusing such drugs is at risk for overdosing.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the opioid crisis began in the late 1990s. Pharmaceutical companies claimed that prescription opioids would not lead to addiction in patients. Doctors then prescribed pain pills to patients at a higher rate than before. As a result, addictions developed, and the prescriptions began being overused, misused, and sold as street drugs. More recently, drug dealers learned to illegally manufacture fentanyl, a prescription opioid.
Children and Opioids
Although the average age of someone who overdoses on opioids is 41 years old, this issue affects people of all ages. Pediatrics journal reviewed opioid statistics related to children and teens and found the following:
• Opioid poisoning hospitalizations nearly doubled between 1997 and 2012, with the highest increases seen in children ages 1-4 and 12-17 years old.
• The number of children admitted to Pediatric Intensive Care Units doubled from 2014 to 2015.
• The opioid overdose death rate in people under age 18 has recently stopped growing.
• Methadone makes up nearly 20 percent of opioids consumed by children ages 1-5, showing that parents treating their own opioid misuse put their children at risk.
Babies are also finding themselves affected by opioid misuse. Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is the diagnosis given when babies go through withdrawal after birth because their systems were accustomed to their mothers’ drug use. The numbers around NAS are alarming: Nearly every 15 minutes, a baby is born already going through opioid withdrawal.
Opioid Issues in Georgia
The National Institute on Drug Abuse provides data showing how Georgia’s opioid statistics compare to the rest of the nation’s. In 2017, Georgia had 1,014 people die from opioid overdose deaths. While this is a significant and saddening amount, it is lower than the national rate.
However, Georgia’s physicians are prescribing opioids at a higher rate than what’s average for the nation. They write 70.9 prescriptions per 100 people, while the national rate is 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people. Though this rate is higher than the national average, it is the lowest rate of prescriptions Georgia has had since the CDC began keeping track.
Even though Georgia’s opioid prescription rate is declining, the state’s death rate for prescription opioid overdoses continues to increase each year. Deaths from heroin and synthetic opioid use also continue to increase, showing that the opioid overdose crisis is getting worse in Georgia, not better, despite a decline in 2013. A yearly increase in the rate of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome in babies born in Georgia also reflects this growing problem.
Efforts to Address the Opioid Crisis
The U.S. government recognizes the seriousness of the opioid overdose crisis, and both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health are working hard to address it. They’re primarily focusing on treatment and recovery program access, drugs that reverse the effects of overdose, research and data on the crisis, and ways to better treat chronic pain.
Locally, the Georgia Department of Public Health is working on initiatives to reduce the number of opioid overdoses. The Georgia Hospital Association is also well aware of the issue, saying their emergency rooms have been “inundated with patients who have overdosed,” so they are taking action in whatever way they can.
Written by: Jay Summer