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The opioid crisis

Nearly 20 million prescriptions for opioid medications were prescribed in 2018 alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, opioid addiction comes with significant medical, social and economic consequences, including more than 130 people a day dying from opioid-related overdoes. Photo by Stacy Fisher

It’s been called a crisis and a national epidemic. Literally millions of people are affected nationally, while many die needlessly every day. It affects family and friends alike, and no one can assume to be immune to its potentially deadly ramifications.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from which most of the following statistics used in this article are based, opioid addiction comes with significant medical, social and economic consequences, including more than 130 people a day dying from opioid-related overdoses.

Nearly 20 million prescriptions for opioid medications were prescribed in 2018 alone.

The history of widespread opioid use starts in the late 1990s, noted HHS, when pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers.

Soon healthcare providers began to prescribe them at ever-greater rates, before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.

Opioids have their proper place in pain management, for example short-term pain relief caused by serious injuries or the management of chronic pain in the elderly, but in June 2017, the FDA recommended that a number of brands of opioids be withdrawn from the marketplace because of the drug’s risks outweighing its benefits, the HHS reported.

Today, over 10 million people misuse prescription opioids, based on official studies, with a majority of those Americans struggling with addiction that are not currently getting treatment.

HHS has declared a public health emergency and announced a multi-point plan to combat the opioid epidemic.

In order to address the emergency, HHS has identified specific strategies to bring to the fight, including advancing better practices for pain management while providing support for cutting edge research on pain and addiction by finding effective alternative treatments, both pharmaceutical and otherwise.

The HHS says improving access to treatment and recovery services is a high priority, along with promoting use of drugs like naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, pulling thousands of Americans each year back from the brink.

Researchers at federal institutions like the National Institute on Drug Abuse and scientists with federal grants across the country are exploring these questions every day, with newly instituted clinical trials underway to fund better solutions to pain management.

Through the 21st Century Cures Act, the HHS has issued over a billion dollars in federal grant funding allocated to states to combat opioid addiction and to support treatment, prevention and recovery efforts, including monies for first responder training by expanding access to FDA-approved drugs or devices for emergency treatment of opioid overdoses.

Also covered by the act are State Pilot Grants available for the treatment of pregnant and postpartum women, programs to increase the availability of long-term recovery support for substance abuse and addiction, including grants earmarked to increase access to treatment and recovery services for opioid abuse in rural communities, among other services.

The epidemic is also having a devastating effect on companies of all sizes and their ability to stay competitive, with at least one commentator calling the misuse of prescription drugs a hidden workplace epidemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Controland Prevention (CDC), the key to the opioid epidemic will require state, federal and local governments working hand-in-hand developing strategies that involve law enforcement, educational institutions and public health agencies to effectively coordinate efforts to reduce the number of families and communities damaged by opioid abuse.


Local efforts

Officially formed in January 2016, the Northern Sierra Opioid Safety Coalition (NSOSC) spans Modoc, Lassen, Plumas and Sierra counties.

The NSOSC, in partnership with the Plumas County Public Health Agency, is made up of two teams: the Prevention Action Team and the Harm Reduction Action Team.

The Prevention Action Team focuses on promoting responsible prescribing practices, expanding access to safe drug disposal, and educating youth about the risks involved with using opioids and other prescription drugs.

The Harm Reduction Action Team focuses on increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, and access to naloxone (a life-saving opioid blocker that reverses the effects of an overdose).

The coalition is made up of partners in public health, local hospitals, the criminal justice system, law enforcement, local nonprofits and the community at large. Since the coalition was formed, the northern region has seen a reduction in unsafe prescribing practices and in opioid overdose-related deaths.

Opioid Safety and how to use naloxone: a guide for community members

How to identify an opioid overdose:

Look for these common signs:

– The person won’t wake up even if you shake them or say their name.

– Breathing slows or even stops. Lips and fingernails turn blue or gray skin gets pale and clammy.

In case of overdose:

Call 911 for medical emergency help right away and give naloxone. If no reaction in 3 minutes, give second dose.

– Do rescue breathing or chest compressions.

– Follow 911 dispatch instructions.

– After administering naloxone, stay with the person for at least 3 hours or until help arrives.

To avoid an accidental overdose:

Try not to mix your opioids with alcohol, benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium, or medicines that make you sleepy.

Be extra careful if you miss or change doses, feel ill, or start new medications.

For more information, visit: northernsierraopioidsafety.org or contact James Wilson at 283-7099.

Contact NSOSC for a brochure for instructions on using the Narcan (naloxone) nasal spray in the event of an overdose.

Free training is available to administer Naloxone at Plumas County Public Health at 270 County Hospital Road, Room, 206 in Quincy.

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