About 3 million Americans suffer from opioid use disorder with 500,000 of those addicted to heroin. Countless others suffer from substance use disorders involving other drugs and alcohol. OUD is a disease, as defined by the American Medical Association, and many people are left undiagnosed and untreated, affecting not only the individual but their families, friends and co-workers.The faces of OUD are everywhere in our community. Every age, gender and socioeconomic group is affected. It is a non-discriminatory disease.
It is estimated that 80 percent of people who turn to the streets for illicit opioid drugs like heroin begin with legitimate prescriptions for opioid pain medications. As a patient’s tolerance and the physiological craving for more opioids increase, so does the danger of misusing the prescription or seeking relief through illegal means. Fatal overdoses can and do occur from streets drugs like heroin and fentanyl, as well as prescription opioid medications like Oxycontin.
In Susquehanna County, where fatal opioid overdoses have spiked over the last decade, members of the Susquehanna County Recovery Alliance and other organizations are working to get people into recovery and battle the stigma and misconceptions about OUD that often pose an unfortunate barrier to treatment and recovery.
Measures to reduce and monitor the rate at which opioids are prescribed in Pennsylvania are being implemented. For example, the Pennsylvania Medical Association and Pennsylvania Dental Association are requiring physicians and dentists to take continuing education courses about their role in use disorder prevention. The SRCA also plans to sponsor Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses on best prescribing practices.
While prescription opioids are a big part of the problem, it is the highly dangerous and toxic fentanyl that is overwhelming the medical and recovery communities. Fentanyl-laced heroin has made its debut in recent years with deadly results. Dealers often mix fentanyl with heroin as an inexpensive method to add potency and quickly increase a user’s dependency.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanyl, which has also shown up on the streets, is 10,000 times more potent. Use of either fentanyl or carfentanyl is reserved in clinical settings for only the most acute or long-term pain management. Its potency and users’ inability to know how much fentanyl is contained in the heroin they buy has had devastating results. Fentanyl in heroin and its other pure forms, such as patches, sublingual delivery and pills, has been responsible for scores of overdose deaths in recent years.