It’s no surprise that bad news is something we would just as soon forget.
That may be one reason that we haven’t heard a lot about an epidemic – drug and alcohol overdoses – that has been virtually hidden from public view. We would venture, however, that few have focused on the tragic loss and cost of overdoses to our community. It’s a story that isn’t being told.
That is changing as a federally funded study looks at the problem locally and a picture of what’s happening emerges.
The study found that 14 Warwick area people died in 2009 from overdoses, to give the city the distinction of being the state’s municipality with the highest per capita rate of overdose fatalities.
This is no one-year aberration, as Dr. Michael Dacey, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Kent Hospital, made evident in a recent talk to the Rotary Club of Warwick. Dr. Dacey said that, between October of last year and March of this year, the hospital emergency department admitted 75 people who had overdosed and were put on ventilators. This compares to 66 for the 12 preceding months. That’s more than a 100 percent increase.
Dr. Dacey also put Rhode Island’s situation in context with what is happening nationally. Fatalities resulting from overdoses total 36,000 a year nationwide, surpassing automobile accidents. In Rhode Island, for the years 2006 to 2010, there were 14,000 overdose emergency department visits that resulted in 4,000 hospitalizations. Of those, there were 1,000 deaths.
Studies show the demographic most affected is between 20 and 35 years old and Dr. Dacey believes the economy plays a significant contributing factor to why people abuse prescribed painkillers as well as alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55 percent of the drugs used by abusers come from friends or relatives. These are drugs that have been legally prescribed but are being given or sold to others.
This may seem preposterous, until one considers the quantity of unused prescription drugs that is sitting in medicine cabinets everywhere. How many have not needed to use a full prescription – let’s pick Vicodin – and thought saving a few for a time when it might come in handy made sense? How many have volunteered those drugs to someone in the family they thought could use them?
Researchers performing the local study have found that the mixing of drugs, as well as the mixing of drugs and alcohol, can be a lethal cocktail.
Dr. Michael Fine, State Department of Health director, has made the overdose of prescription drugs a priority and is looking to implement a program that, among other actions, includes improved monitoring of drugs, educational programs for pharmacists and the collection of used drugs.
We would add to his list: improved reporting of the issue with regularly reported statistics on the number of overdose cases treated by hospitals and quantity of “turned back” drugs.
Unless we know the story, it can’t be told. And unless the story is told, we believe, many will continue to use these drugs not realizing how they are flirting with death.