Opioids: An Epidemic

Jun 21
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There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight for the opioid epidemic. “The opioid problem has yet to peak as overdose deaths remain at all-time highs and the number of addicts needing treatment continues to grow,” said Peter Brunzelle, director of SALS Recovery Center, in a recent interview.

Opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others.

These drugs work by attaching to opioid receptors on nerve cells easing pain.

Peter believes that thousands of more substance abuse counselors would be needed to catch up with this epidemic in Wisconsin.

Some of the numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services tell the story. There has been a 29% increase in prescription drug overdose deaths and 869% heroin overdose deaths from 2006 to 2014 in Wisconsin.

“We can’t get the problem moving the other way because we don’t have the workforce in place,” Peter said. “We need double or triple the amount of people to handle what’s happening to serve that community.”

The health care system in Wisconsin is being stressed by this epidemic. Substance abuse professionals are in high demand as the numbers of those affected increase.

State officials are doing what they can to fight the issue, such as the task force Governor Scott Walker set up and the legislation that John Nygren, Wisconsin representative, has led in response to the epidemic since 2013. John’s daughter struggled through a heroin addiction prior to his involvement in fighting this epidemic.

“There’s still a stigma with heroin, but not with prescription drugs like OxyContin,” John said. “That bottle in your medicine cabinet is just as dangerous as shooting yourself up with heroin.”

Legislature that recently went into effect has already seen decreases in the amounts of pain medications being prescribed by physicians.

Many attribute the current epidemic to the rise of opioid prescriptions from physicians in the 90s. On the flip side, those with addictions are seeking cheaper and easier to obtain opioids, such as heroin, because of these new restrictions.

Treating the Problem

Putting more restrictions and making opioids harder to get may help curb the issue, but it doesn’t solve it. Increases in treatment also need to be made. Governor Walker has a bill on his desk to fund $1 million dollars per year that would go toward creating new private treatment centers. Another bill would help provide funding to train physicians in treating those with addiction. The new centers will be located based on the need seen by the Department of Health Services.

Pete Carlson, president of behavioral health at Aurora Health Care, said, “This has been like nothing we’ve seen — even when crack cocaine came in. It seems to me that the patients are younger. It seems there’s less of a maturity level. The addiction is so strong.” Pete pointed out that many of those they treat for opioid addiction are in their teens to 20s.

Medical director for Rogers Memorial Hospital, Dr. Jerry Halverson, says that the majority of drug addiction patients are being treated for opioid addiction and that the disappointing reality is they aren’t “seeing the numbers fall. Unfortunately, the amount has generally stayed the same over the past couple years.”