Nearly 80 people will die today from a preventable, opioid-related overdose. That’s more than 28,000 Americans who die annually from our opioid abuse epidemic — a figure that continues to climb with more than 2.1 million people in the United States suffering from substance-use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.
This number is amplified today, as we observe International Overdose Awareness Day — a moment to remember those who’ve passed and to educate ourselves on the inherent risk involved in consuming an opioid. This inherent risk is arguably America’s greatest public health crisis since HIV/AIDS, one that has caused communities across socio-economic backgrounds throughout the United States to suffer.
What’s scariest today is the knowledge that most (56 percent) of these overdoses are occurring in private homes unbeknownst to those around them. In addition, the rise of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, W-18, and carfentanil — also called “heroin’s deadlier cousin” and an “elephant sedative” — are wiping out those already addicted to opiates as the epidemic worsens and more Americans are caught in the cycle of opioid dependence.
Without dose-appropriate, easy-to-use naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal antidote, in the hands of the friends and families in those homes, victims of overdose will continue to die waiting for emergency services. Without naloxone available or strong enough to counteract prescription drugs and heroin laced with these potent, illicit opioids, we are going to continue to see spats of overdoses that leave dozens of Americans dead in short periods of time – such as events in Chicago, Milwaukee, Sacramento and Boston earlier this year.
As the opioid epidemic evolves, we must also evolve how we approach the use and access of naloxone. First responders and EMTs are no longer the only ones facing this problem head on, and cannot be the only people equipped with naloxone and plenty of it. Now, doctors, harm reduction groups, friends, treatment centers, law enforcement, family and community members are finding themselves at the frontlines of this epidemic and able to impact these emergency situations in unparalleled ways.
Therefore, on this International Overdose Awareness Day, we must make a promise to get naloxone into the homes and hands of the general public in order to prevent these overdose-related deaths from even occurring and slowing this public health crisis. It is the only way to give Americans in the throes of addiction a second chance at life.
That is why, as a doctor and pain specialist, it has been my mission to not only slow the prescribing and proliferation of non-medical opioid drugs, but to spread the knowledge of and access to this potentially life-saving medication in the communities that need it most. Today, there is even an FDA-approved naloxone nasal spray intended for community use and made with the non-medically trained person in mind, including mothers, brothers or caregivers.
Thankfully, there have been significant breakthroughs in the battle against our nation’s opioid epidemic through increased access to naloxone. Currently, 31 states have issued standing orders, which permits pharmacies to dispense naloxone without a physician’s prescription, meaning anyone in these 31 states can walk into a CVS pharmacy and request an easy-to-use, naloxone nasal spray without a prescription.
For all providers, the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines on opioid prescribing — including a recommendation to encourage prescribing naloxone alongside higher-risk opioids. By offering naloxone alongside an opioid prescription, we are taking an important step toward mitigating this public health crisis and are automatically increasing awareness of the medication.
We also are removing overdose stigma by alerting at-risk patients to just how deadly the abuse or misuse of opioids can really be. What’s appalling is how few naloxone prescriptions were filled in comparison to the 259 million prescriptions written for opioids in 2012 – more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills. The CDC guidelines bring national attention to physicians’ prescribing practices that may drive abuse while offering legitimate recommendations to curb our growing epidemic.
As thousands of people across the world come together over this volatile issue, we must reflect on the tools available and the ways in which we can bring the almost 80 opioid overdose deaths a day to zero. Today, too many of us are wearing silver to signify the loss of a friend or loved one.
International Overdose Awareness Day is not only a time to remember them, but a time to act.
Dr. William Morrone is a board certified pain physician that specializes in the treatment of chronic pain and addiction and is Bay County’s deputy chief medical examiner and chief medical officer for Recovery Pathways in Bay City and Ortonville, Michigan. Dr. Morrone trained at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) and has been a medical guest on CNN, HLN, and FOX News.