At the end of this month, people from across the world will recognize a struggle that in 2016 alone, killed more Americans than the entirety of the Vietnam War.
But this battle isn’t being fought with guns and bombs in a faraway country. It’s being fought in your home country, in your hometown, in the streets, in the hospitals and perhaps, in your home.
August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day: a decades strong initiative designed to shine a spotlight on the hundreds of thousands of near-fatal and fatal overdoses every year and reduce the stigma so that compassionate, evidence-based policy can take hold and wipe out this deadly epidemic.
And while you might think that this isn’t something that could affect you, the answer is a little closer to home: The United States experiences approximately one quarter of estimated global drug-related deaths. Of that, overdose related deaths – particularly driven by opioids – have tripled between 1999 and 2015. That number only appears to be rising, with increasing availability of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and stronger analogs like carfentanil a major factor.
In 2017, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that a minimum of 190,000 people die prematurely from drug overdoses; with the “majority attributable to the use of opioids”. In reality, the true number of premature deaths is likely exponentially larger than reported: in many places, drug users are a “forgotten” people, a marginalized demographic unlikely to report overdoses for fear of persecution for illegal drug use and at the same time, discounted by indifferent governments and law enforcement agencies.
With International Overdose Awareness Day, the intent is to make this issue everyone’s concern: not just the problem of drug users, their families and those involved in relevant social work and law enforcement roles. If we can hold a conversation, as a society, we can bring those affected out of the shadows and create policies and initiatives that can prevent future overdoses.
We don’t have all the answers right now but there is evidence behind several approaches to curbing drug abuse and overdoses. For instance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified that the amount of opioids prescribed per person had tripled between 1999 and 2015.
Remember a few paragraphs above where we identified that fatal overdoses attributable to opioids had also tripled during that same period? You should – because of the over prescription and highly addictive nature of opioids, a medical script can often be a gateway to other opioids, like heroin. That’s way many public health experts are calling for reductions in opioid prescriptions through different medical interventions. One floated solution: medical marijuana as a means to treat chronic pain.
Other evidence-based policies that have been shown to work are providing free or subsidized access to addiction services. Disproportionately, people on Medicaid or are low-income are disproportionately at a higher risk for a prescription drug or opioid overdose. Often, the cost of rehabilitative services can be prohibitive to someone suffering from addiction or they may not be able to afford the time off of work to effectively address their addiction in such a setting. Again, this is a public heath policy that requires legislative action to achieve – something that has proven difficult in a political climate focused on the “War on Drugs”.
Ultimately, what you can do right now is make sure that those in your life that might be dealing with addiction issues know that they are not alone and that you are ready to help provide the support they need to overcome. Materially, you can consider carrying Naloxone, a life-saving medication that can stop or reverse an opioid overdose. This injectable drug is now being carried by police officers in Canada and has been recommended by the U.S. Surgeon General for carry to help prevent overdoses.
Drug addiction is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight or with one policy. But we can take steps right now to help ensure that those suffering don’t have to go it alone and have a better chance of beating the odds. On August 31st, spread the word about International Overdose Awareness Day. You could help save a life.