Chronic. Progressive. Fatal. That’s how Colleen Babcock, parent and family support coordinator at Horizon Health Services, characterizes addiction.
Opioid addiction has grown in the past decade, particularly in the past couple years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimated there were more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.
Of those overdose deaths, the sharpest increase came from synthetic opioids. The number of opioid-related deaths jumped from 20,000 in 2016 to more than 29,000 in 2017. The second highest number of drug overdose deaths in 2017 totaled nearly 16,000 from heroin.
Natural and semi-synthetic opioid overdose deaths totaled third highest, with nearly 15,000 in 2017. Methadone overdose deaths came at the bottom of the list, with about 3,200 deaths in 2017.
The NIDA defines opioids as a class of drug that includes heroin, synthetic opioids and pain relievers that are legally available by prescription.
A common misconception with opioid addiction is that it’s a matter of having the self-control to stop using. Erie County Commissioner of Mental Health Michael Ranney said addiction should not be viewed this way because it’s a physical condition.
“(Addiction) affects our brain pretty significantly,” he said. “It’s a disease. It is not something somebody should be ashamed of. It’s not a matter of willpower.”
Since some opioids are legally prescribed by physicians, practically anyone can get addicted, according to Jessica Hutchings, who works at Kids Escaping Drugs. She runs the group’s Face 2 Face Program, which partners with communities and schools in Western New York to provide early education and addiction intervention.
Avi Israel, founder and president of Save the Michaels of the World, said there is a place for opioids in the medical world, but many people are prescribed opioids when it’s not necessary. Save the Michaels aims to raise awareness of prescription and other drug addictions.
“Pharmaceutical companies have convinced the Federal Drug Administration to let opioids be prescribed for moderate pain,” Israel said.
Plus, about 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for pain misuse them, according to the NIDA.
The issue is similarly prevalent in Western New York. The number of people in outpatient emergency department visits increased from 2015 to 2016 in Erie and Niagara counties, according to a New York State County Opioid report. The number of people per 100,000 of the population that had an outpatient emergency department visit due to opioid overdoses jumped in Erie County from 921 to 1,093 from 2015 to 2016.
That number also increased in Niagara County from 174 people in 2015 to 226 in 2016. That’s a roughly 30 percent increase.
And while the data shows accurate trends, the specific numbers may be underestimations due to the way the data is collected, according to Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein. Erie County hit a three-year low in overdose deaths in 2017 and Niagara County’s numbers decreased as well. However, Burstein said it’s critical to keep battling the crisis.
“We’re still seeing opioid deaths in our community,” she said. “One death is one death too many.”