While drug overdoses are down, opioid epidemic is still a public health crisis

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The Centers for Disease Control recently released preliminary data finding that drug overdoses in the United States are down for the first time in nearly 30 years. A severe crisis that affects public health, along with social and economic welfare, drug overdoses hit an all-time high in 2017 with about 70,000 deaths.

Currently, the majority of overdoses are from prescription opioids, synthetic opioids and heroin. Often, those overdoses are the result of a combination of more than one drug.

“The problem with the opioid epidemic is that it’s a public health crisis that affects every demographic in every state. It’s the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S.— surpassing motor vehicles,” says Anthoni Llau, research scientist for the Global Health Consortium and research partner with the Miami-Dade County Opioid Affected Youth Initiative. “There are more people going into drug treatment and rehabilitation centers and more babies being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which, of course, leads to an increased burden on society and loss of productivity.”

The prescription drug crisis is most often linked to pharmaceutical companies and distributers sales of painkillers in the mid-90s and the over prescription of painkillers in the early 2000s that would often lead to misuse and addiction.

“While the national trends show an overall decline in overdoses, deaths resulting from illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl continue to rise. Once physicians stopped prescribing the drugs as often, people would either purposefully injure themselves for new prescriptions or move on to illicit opioids, which tend to be cheaper and easier to get,” Llau adds.

In Florida, three of the top four most prescribed drugs in 2018 were opioids.

As part of his work with Miami-Dade County, Llau was asked to join the Opioid Addiction Task Force, which was founded in 2016 and, according to the website, “charged with developing an effective action plan that addresses the reduction of opioid and heroin addiction, prevents overdose deaths and improves the quality of life in our community.”

Llau then became involved with a three-year grant that focuses directly on how the opioid crisis is affecting youths in the county.

“We’re seeing kids affected on so many levels. Their parents are addicted or absent as a result of addiction or the youths are addicted themselves,” Llau says. “Usually, with children under 18, it is mostly still about the parents or guardians but with the 18-24 year old youths, we are seeing them become addicted.”

The team’s research has found the epicenter for overdoses in the county is near Downtown Miami, where many individuals purchase illicit opioids. Now, the task force is developing intervention strategies that they hope will make a difference.

“Even though we are seeing a drop, this crisis is far from over,” Llau says. “When I joined the task force, and I didn’t really understand the extent of the problem. Then I saw what it is doing to the community. How big of a problem it really is. As a public health professional, you just want to help your community. If you can help people from getting started in the first place, then you’ve done your job and that is why we are focusing on youths.”