Face to face with a ‘silent epidemic’
Dangers lurk around us every day, often unseen. Sometimes, they are found in places we forget to look, or take for granted.
The perils associated with drug abuse – addiction, crime, broken lives – are well known. But a recent rash of overdose deaths in the Ocean State demonstrates how this problem impacts our communities in ways we may not have considered.
In the two weeks after Jan. 1, 22 Rhode Islanders lost their lives after overdosing on drugs. That figure doubled from the same period in 2013.
Deeply troubling on its own, this recent trend has also defied common conceptions regarding drug use. The 22 deaths were spread among 13 communities, and ranged in age from 20 to 62.
“It’s the rich and the poor,” said Warwick Police Capt. Joseph Coffey during a recent forum with health officials. “It definitely is without prejudice.”
To put the numbers in a wider context, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says overdose deaths – an indicator of overall drug abuse – have tripled nationwide since 1990.
One hundred people die every day in the United States as a result of drug overdoses, according to the CDC, and Rhode Island has the 13th highest overdose mortality rate in the country with an average of four deaths each week. In many cases, asphyxiation is the actual cause of death, as the brain begins to die when narcotics slow the respiratory system and the patient stops breathing.
The cause of the latest increase in local deaths is unclear, possibly tied to a bad strain of heroin being circulated or perhaps attributable to growing experimentation with mixing drugs, including prescription medication. What is clear is that drug abuse, particularly involving opiates and prescription medication, is a growing problem – a “silent epidemic,” as Coffey described it.
Positive steps have been taken in recent years to combat the trend. Improving monitoring of prescriptions, instituting the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Prevention Act, which grants legal immunity to those making emergency calls to report overdoses, and highlighting the availability of the opiate overdose antidote Narcan, known generically as naxalone, were all cited during the recent public health and law enforcement press conference. The creation of prescription drop boxes at which residents can drop off unneeded medications anonymously and without questions would also provide a valuable resource to the community.
But as with any societal problem, there is only so much that can be achieved through top-down action.
Rhode Islanders, and all Americans, are increasingly becoming aware of the growth in opiate and prescription abuse. As the extent and reach of abuse increases, more and more will come to know the issue personally – through neighbors, friends, relatives, children.
Education will play a vital role in successfully combating this danger, and a forum planned from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at Warwick Police headquarters will focus on a range of related issues, from what actions to take in the event of an overdose to key steps for family safety.
More than knowledge, though, this problem requires action. It requires us remaining vigilant and responsible in our own homes in terms of securing and disposing of medications. It requires us to work with emergency personnel and health officials, with educators and elected leaders, to find new solutions.
Most importantly, it requires us looking at what leads people of any age to abuse dangerous drugs, and to contemplate what we can do collectively to be a positive force in those lives.