Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Cory Monteith are two highly publicized heroin deaths in the U.S. in the past year or two. They are examples of the growing problem created by the misuse of narcotic painkillers and heroin in America. While deaths involving prescription opioids is leveling off, deaths from heroin overdoses in most of the U.S. doubled in the past two years.
Earlier this year, Attorney General Eric Holder called the increase in deaths from heroin an “urgent and growing public health crisis.” A new federal health report illustrates that growth. It shows that, from 2010 to 2012, overdoses deaths from heroin doubled in 28 states that are home to 56 percent of the population. Public health officials have indicated that the increase in heroin fatalities is a result of the narcotic painkiller abuse epidemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Whether prescription drugs or illegal ones like heroin, “there is a growing population of people who are using narcotics,” per Dr. Len Paulozzi, who is a medical epidemiologist at National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC. The overprescribing of narcotic painkillers (such as Vicodin, Oxycontin and other opioids) for the past two decades has fostered the heroin problem, per Paulozzi.
Addiction to prescription drugs, such opioid painkillers, does not necessarily lead to heroin. But, research shows that 75 percent of new heroin users first start with narcotic painkillers. Some people who become addicted to prescription painkillers most over entirely to heroin, particularly in parts of the country where heroin is cheaper and easier to obtain than tightly regulated prescription opioids. Illicit supplies of opioid painkillers have been reduced with greater restrictions on prescriptions, in an attempt to curtail their abuse. However, heroin availability has increased in many areas, including non-urban and rural areas.
The CDC report details trends on heroin-related deaths. The Northeast and South showed the greatest increases of deaths. In fact, heroin overdoses in the Northeast rose by 211 percent and in the South by 181 percent during 2010 to 2012, the CDC said. During the same period, overdoses from heroin increased in the Midwest by 62 percent and in the West by 91 percent in the West, per the CDC report.
The death rate by ages also reflects the idea that painkiller addiction is transitioning into heroin addiction. For example, deaths have climbed 120 percent for people 45 to 54, which is not an age group one would assume would start using heroin.
Solving the heroin overdose problems begins with addressing the narcotic painkiller addiction, according to Paulozzi. “We still have to focus on reducing the prescribing of narcotic pain relievers,” he noted, “because that’s really what got us into this situation.”
To help those already addicted, better access to drug treatment programs is needed. They help reduce the risk of a fatal overdose. In addition, the CDC and other entities have been recommending increased availability of naloxone (Narcan), an antidote to narcotic overdoses, for first responders (e.g. police and fire personnel) to carry and administer on the scene. The goal is to reduce the heroin overdoses in the country, which doubled in most of the U.S. in the last few years.
By Dyanne Weiss