Opiate addiction deemed ‘public health emergency’

By Michael Campbell – News Editor

VIRGINIA – According to data from the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2014, nearly 19,000 people died from overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, with 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin abuse.

As those numbers paint a picture of the grip opiate addiction is taking across the nation, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and State Health Commissioner Marissa J. Levine declares opiate abuse “a public health emergency” in the commonwealth.

This declaration comes in response to the growing number of overdoses attributed to opioid use, and evidence that Carfentanil, a highly dangerous synthetic opioid used to sedate large animals such as elephants, has made its way its way into Virginia. A Public Health Emergency is an event, either natural or manmade, that creates a health risk to the public.

“Too many families across Virginia and the nation are dealing with heartbreak and loss as a result of prescription opioid and heroin abuse epidemic,” said Governor McAuliffe. “We cannot stand by while these drugs harm our communities and our economy. That is why I support Dr. Levine’s decision to declare a public health emergency, to heighten awareness of this issue, provide a framework for further actions to fight it, and to save Virginians’ lives.”

In response to the Public Health Emergency, and in partnership with Virginia’s Board of Pharmacy, Department of Health Professions and Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Dr. Levine has issued a standing order that allows all Virginians to obtain the drug Naloxone, which can be used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.

The standing order serves as a prescription written for the general public, rather than specifically for an individual, removing a barrier to access.

According to data from the Attorney General’s Office, “in the first six months of 2016, at least 216 Virginians have died from fatal prescription opioid overdose, 103 from a heroin overdose and 136 from a fentanyl overdose.”

The Governor’s Office reports by the end of 2016, the numbers of fatal opioid overdose deaths are expected to increase by 77 percent, compared to five years ago. In 2014, for the first time in Virginia, more people died from opioid overdoses than fatal car accidents. Emergency department visits for heroin overdose for January-September 2016 increased 89 percent, compared to the same nine-month period in 2015. In the first half of 2016, the total number of fatal drug overdoses in Virginia increased 35 percent, when compared to the same time period in 2015, and in 2013, fatal drug overdoses became the number one cause of unnatural death.

“As we see the nature of drug addiction shift, from prescription opioids to heroin and synthetic fentanyl, we must be vigilant and ready to respond quickly,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Dr. Bill Hazel.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a contributing factor in the increase in abuse of prescription pain relievers is tied to the significant increase in the number of prescriptions written. In their report, “Providers wrote nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions in 2013 – with wide variations across states,” adding, “This is enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills.”

Virginia ranked 29th in opioid pain reliever prescribing rates and 36th in terms of prescriptions for long-lasting and extended-release opioid pain relievers. The CDC notes the most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths include Methadone, Oxycodone, such as OxyContin, and Hydrocodone, such as Vicodin.

“To reverse this epidemic, we need to improve the way we treat pain,” remarked officials with the CDC “We must prevent abuse, addiction, and overdose before they start.”

“The overdose rates in Virginia have led me to agree with Dr. Levine that we are indeed experiencing a public health emergency. This declaration helps us respond in a nimble way to a rapidly changing threat, while the Naloxone standing order from Dr. Levine broadens our ability to get life-saving medication into Virginians’ hands,” Hazel continued.

“Pharmacists play an important role in combating opioid addiction,” said Virginia Board of Pharmacy Executive Director Caroline D. Juran, RPh. “By allowing Naloxone to be safely and responsibly issued by pharmacists to anyone in Virginia, friends and family members of individuals struggling with addiction can take a much-needed step towards preventing overdoses of loved ones.”

“For far too long, stigmas have plagued addiction struggles.  By declaring a public health emergency, the Commonwealth of Virginia is bringing the opioid epidemic to the forefront of public discussion,” said Dr. Jack Barber, Interim Commissioner, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. “It is important that all Virginians learn how to recognize the signs of addiction and be able to help those struggling with addiction to seek care.”

For more information on opioid and heroin addiction, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at http://cdc.gov.

Copyright 2016 by Womack Publications

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