What started in 1999 as a problem quickly became a opioid epidemic in the United States causing as many as 64,000 deaths per year in this country. Due to the huge death toll, the country’s life expectancy fell for two consecutive years, making the opioid crisis the worst addiction pandemic in American history. While statistics are sufficient to tell how it has worsened each year, it misses out on some of the important aspects. Photos, videos, and stories of people on the front lines of this pandemic show this is a national emergency that demands urgent attention.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a diverse class of addictive, inexpensive, and moderately strong drugs which includes opiates such as heroin and morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. Opioids are used for pain management, as they are suitable for treating acute pain. However, clinical guidelines suggest that the drug should be used for chronic pain only if other alternatives are deemed ineffective or harmful. This is because opioids have risks that outweigh their benefits.

Opioids have become popular as both recreational and medical treatment drugs mainly because of their potency and availability. It is also noticeable that the drug is highly addictive, and long-term use can result in physical dependency. Once a patient starts taking a higher dosage than what it is prescribed by the doctor, for pain relief or just to feel the high, it is known as the beginning stage of opioid addiction.

What is the Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid crisis, or referred to as the opioid epidemic, is the nationwide overuse of opioid medications and resulting overdoses and deaths. They either source from a valid prescription or through any other illegal means. The crisis started in 1999 when the drug was first prescribed for pain management and kept increasing over the subsequent years.

A total of 399,000 deaths were recorded from 1999 to 2017 that involved drug overdose of prescribed or illegal opioid medications. The year 2017 alone recorded 70,000+ drug overdose deaths, out of which around 48,000 involved the consumption of opioids. The United States currently witnesses an average of 130 deaths per day from an opioid drug overdose.

A report suggests that in 2015, those addicted to opioids were mostly young and white, with 1.2 million women as compared to the 0.9 million male addicts. The rural areas of the country have suffered the biggest blow, and opioid abuse amongst the teens has been constantly increasing since 2006. The abuse results more from using prescribed drugs than illegal ones, except cannabis. Not only has it chained addicts to addiction, but opioid has also broken the social, moral, and cultural resistance to drugs such as heroin.

The Rise of The Opioid Epidemic

According to the Center for Disease Control, the epidemic arrived in the US in three waves.

First Wave

The first wave arrived in the 1990’s, that marked the beginning of this epidemic. Opioid medications were first pushed to use by the aggressive promotions carried out by the pharmaceutical companies. At this time, more than 100 million people were suffering from chronic pain, but the drug was only reserved for acute pain management. Physicians denied prescribing opioids claiming the lack of evidence supporting its use and the concerns that the drug may have addictive properties.

Later, due to the promotional strategies by pharmaceutical companies and other research claims, it was said that people could not get addicted and the drug is suitable for pain management. From 1990 to 1999 alone, the prescription count for this drug increased from 76 million to 116 million, making it the most prescribed drug in the United States. However, there was also a spike in deaths related to opioid overdose. The trend clearly showed how prescribed drugs were dragged to the illegal market leading to addiction and death.

Second Wave

The second wave began around 2010 and is identified by the spike in heroin use and related overdose fatalities. The number of people using heroin increased exponentially between 2005 and 2012, causing the statistics to increase from 380,000 to 670,000. This sudden rise resulted from the increase in heroin supplies in the U.S. and reduced prices, making the drug accessible to a large proportion of people with a known dependence on opioids. It encouraged these individuals to transition from opioids to a cheaper and concentrated alternative.

Third Wave

The most recent wave of the opioid epidemic began in the year 2013 and is currently ongoing. The third wave correlates with the spike in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (illegally produced fentanyl).

How The U.S. Is Dealing With The Opioid Epidemic

The Obama administration began dealing with the crisis in 2011 and authorized funding worth millions of dollars for opioid research and treatment. Soon after this, many state governors became active and declared a state of emergency to deal with the opioid epidemic and take critical actions to stop it. In 2017, the epidemic was cited as the biggest crisis, after which President Donald Trump declared this crisis as a national emergency. It was September 2019 when Trump asked the United States mail carriers to block the shipment of one of the most powerful opioids, fentanyl, from other nations.

Since the prescription rate for this drug in the United States is 40 percent higher than any other developed country, the opioid epidemic is often referred to as a uniquely American problem. The opioid epidemic causes more deaths in a year than guns and car crashes. Not only does it effect the mental and emotional well-being of an individual, but it also leaves many children orphaned. All of these severe conditions had the government act on this urgency. Doctors and pharmacists who were prescribing more opioid painkillers than required are being tracked down and appropriate measures are taken against them.

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