As we enter the holiday season, a time when many of us will reflect on the spirit of goodwill, charity and compassion, I sincerely hope the Binghamton University campus will take a moment to spread the word about a quietly suffering population in desperate need of support.
Prescription drug abuse has penetrated the media in large part because of its fatal toll on celebrities like Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson. According to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 2.4 million Americans use prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, with the rate of abuse more than doubling between 2002 and 2010, from 360,000 to 754,000 people. Opiates like Oxycontin and Vicodin are the cause of more than three-fourths of overdose deaths, greater than all other illegal drugs combined.
Yet the national epidemic, which includes the illicit use of such drugs as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, receives negligible media attention as it relates to the broader demographic of substance abusers.
Unfortunately, drug overdose is a dirty subject and current public opinion is reminiscent of the stigma the HIV/AIDS-affected community experienced during the 1980s. Initially, the disease was slow to be addressed because of an erroneous perception that the infection was solely due to high-risk behavior, namely drug addiction and homosexuality. The health problem fully existed among heterosexuals, but it wasn’t until the public realized its prevalence in the general population that the topic finally received mass media coverage.
While it might be easy to assume those affected by overdose are mostly indigent people, the fact is that middle class Americans are hurting too. Recent trends have shown that young adults aged 15-24 are among those at increasing risk, particularly in suburbs on Long Island. Although drug overdose is not as widespread as HIV/AIDS, the vast majority of these deaths are just as preventable with Good Samaritan legislation and overdose-reversal medications.
Most people understand the importance of calling 911 to receive an immediate response for a medical emergency. However, when it comes to overdose, the fear of prosecution or civil litigation often leads to hesitation and in many cases could mean the call is never made. It is estimated that anywhere between 10 and 56 percent of overdoses are reported. Good Samaritan laws protect witnesses who report an overdose from charges ranging from low-level drug possession to intoxication.
Thankfully, New York has set an example in the expanding movement by offering immunity from arrest and prosecution to both witnesses and the overdose victim. This is especially important on college campuses, where students can report alcohol poisoning without incriminating themselves for underage drinking.
Evidence has also shown that naloxone — a low-cost overdose-reversal medication that has been used safely for more than 40 years to reverse the effects of opiates — plays a significant role in the prevention of more than 3,000 deaths each year. Naloxone is a prescription drug, and because very few companies produce it, the costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Considering it has no potential for abuse and is not difficult to administer, over-the-counter access would open the market and meet the increasing demand.
These methods, along with supervised injection sites, have been proven to be effective, through research and in practice. In a paradigm shift away from the criminal justice system and toward a public health approach, federal and state governments have an opportunity to reduce the harms associated with prescription and illegal drug overdose by providing even minimal funding to monitor, research and coordinate prevention programs.
There needs to be more awareness surrounding this issue, because there are cost-effective interventions. With basic overdose prevention education, we could make a real difference in reducing the likelihood of fatal overdose, a tragedy that touches too many in the United States.