Fewer prescriptions won't end opioid crisis

Johnson City Press • Jun 21, 2019 at 9:10 PM

The Tennessee Medical Association delivered a bright spot of news this week amid the opioid epidemic that continues to darken our communities.

As reported by Press Senior Reporter Robert Houk, the group released new numbers Monday showing a 13.3% decrease in opioid prescriptions between 2017 and 2018.

The state physicians’ association credited its own efforts to educate doctors about proper pain management practices and its partnership with state lawmakers to pass legislation safeguarding patients as contributing factors in the decline in the number of pills prescribed to the state’s residents.

Reducing the over-prescription of powerful and addictive prescription narcotics is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t mean our struggle against this epidemic is over.

Evidence shows that, with prescription drugs no longer available to feed their addictions, people are turning to illicit substances like heroin and fentanyl, two opioids many times over more potent than prescription pills.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a decline in overdose deaths linked to prescription opioids in 2017 was accompanied by a significant spike in heroin and fentanyl deaths. Overall, overdose deaths attributed to opioids rose that year, a trend researchers and medical professionals do not believe will turn around very quickly.

A study published earlier this year on the Journal of the American Medical Association Network Open suggested that opioid prescription monitoring programs would have a modest effect, at best, on the number of opioid-related deaths in the country over the next six years.

Between 2016 and 2025, the team of researchers estimated more than 700,000 people will die by overdose, 80% of which are expected to be from illicit drug use. That’s more than 10 times the population of Johnson City dead in 10 years.

As if that’s not distressing enough, the opioid epidemic has spun off other social ills that will take their toll.

In 2016, 9% of new HIV diagnoses and 68.6% of new hepatitis C diagnoses nationally were attributed to the use of injected drugs. High-risk injection practices like needle-sharing are causing an increase in infectious diseases.

The CDC marked a dramatic rise in hepatitis C infections in central Appalachian communities, including ours in Tennessee, caused largely by needle sharing.

Then there are the unknown costs of the thousands of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome to mothers who used opioids during pregnancy.

The immediate danger to these infants’ health is heartbreaking, but emerging evidence suggests children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome may have developmental problems later in life.

So, while the TMA may be addressing the tip of the iceberg by taking on over-prescription, a mountain of ice still lies beneath the surface. This crisis will likely get worse before it gets better, and it’s up to all of us to help lessen the impact.

We can start by showing empathy to our friends, family members and neighbors who have been caught in the cycle of addiction. If having an addiction and seeking treatment for it continues to be stigmatized, fewer people will get help, and this epidemic will be prolonged.

We’re all facing the negative impacts of opioids, but by banding together, we can weather the storm.

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