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Guest MINDSETTER™ Diana Chekrallah: Dramatic Increase in Heroin Use Should be a Wake-Up Call

Sunday, July 19, 2015

 

Heroin use is continuing to dramatically increase and is expanding rapidly in all demographic and ethnic groups, according to a recently released report from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In fact, the most rapid expansion of heroin use and addiction is now occurring among segments of the population that up until recently were not as impacted: women, and people with higher incomes. This signals a disturbing widening of a problem that had already reached epidemic proportions.

Over the past decade, the annual rate of increase in heroin use is more than 60 percent. More than 8,000 people die each year in the United States from heroin overdoses and an additional 17,000 die from overdoses of mainly opiate-based prescription drugs. Overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States and in Rhode Island. “Heroin use is increasing at an alarming rate in many parts of society, driven by both the prescription opioid epidemic and cheaper, more available heroin,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.

Research shows that people who abuse or are dependent on: prescription opiate painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse or be dependent on heroin. This is because heroin is also opiate-based. When people who become addicted to prescription pain killers can no longer get this medication they often turn to heroin—its illegal street cousin. They work on the exact same brain receptors. The over-prescribing of prescription painkillers—a three fold increase over the past twenty years—is the largest single driver of the increase in heroin addiction.

To curb this epidemic, which is costing so much in avoidable deaths, ruined lives and mounting expenditures, requires a comprehensive approach. This includes implementing serious prevention measures, ensuring access to high quality treatment and stepped up and coordinated law enforcement efforts to limit the current all too easy access to very inexpensive heroin.   

While, both at the national level and here in Rhode Island some good initial steps have been taken, our response still comes nowhere near matching the scale of the problem. In Rhode Island, it is good to see the major increase in access to Narcan, a life-saving drug that serves as an antidote to opiate overdoses. But we need more effective interventions before people have gotten this far down such a bad road.

Among the best practices we must put in place are strengthening our state prescription monitoring program to make sure we prevent patients from doctor shopping to get more pills, making sure that all who need high quality treatment receive it, and updating our drug abuse education in the public schools to emphasize the dangers of prescription painkiller abuse and heroin. A special effort should also be made to ensure that prisoners and other people caught up in the criminal justice system, where the rate of addiction is very high, are given access to treatment. Additionally, we must enlist all Rhode Islanders in emptying their medicine chests of unused pills. Surveys show a high percentage of teenagers and young adults get their initial opiate-based pill supply from family and friends.

It is time to launch the all out attack on this problem that solving it requires.

Diana Chekrallah is Executive Director of The Journey to Hope, Health, Healing, which provides medication-assisted therapy at clinics in Johnston, Providence and Westerly For more information, visit TheJourneyHHH.com.

 

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