The Past and Present threat of opioids to the US

By Akina Nanayakkara 

Picture Credit: KVC Health Systems

Opium was first introduced in the US during the 1770s as a form of pain relief medicine. In the 1860s, during the Civil War, the use of opium became much more common after nurses and medical professionals observed opium having much stronger pain-relieving attributes than other medications that were being used. Nurses and medical professionals observed that the pain-relieving attributes of Opioids were far more significant than other available medication. Ignorant of the dangers of opium, over 400,000 of the people treated became addicted to the drug. In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s opioid addiction saw a sharp increase due to their easy access. The increase in addictions went unnoticed as use became mainstream during this time period. By 1910, opioids were being used by many Americans for pleasure due to their euphoric effect when taken. In the late 1900s, drug companies undermined the addictive effect of the drug to many medical professionals, leading many to overprescribe. As of 2018, over 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses, leading the health department to officially declare a public health emergency. 

The health hazards of opioids are extremely life-threatening and difficult to overcome. Opioids come in many forms but the most commonly prescribed are Morphine, Hydromorphone, Fentanyl, and Meperidine. While each form of opium may vary in chemical structure, they all bind to the body’s opioid receptors in the brain the same way. Opioid drugs bind to these receptors more powerfully than regular endorphins. After ingesting opioids, one will experience a sense of elation and euphoria; this is due to the release of dopamine. Simultaneously, opioid drugs limit breathing, circulation, and attentiveness. The higher the dosage of the drug taken the higher the risk of these health issues arise. As a person begins ingesting opioid drugs on a regular basis, the body builds immunity towards the drug, resulting in a need for a higher dosage for the same effect. When attempting to limit the amount of opioids being consumed, the person will experience extreme pain and discomfort and as a result, will end up taking more opium to counteract the painful effects of withdrawal. As such, the vicious cycle of opium addiction continues.

The current COVID-19 crisis poses a threat to those struggling with opioid addiction. Many rehabilitation and detox facilities are limiting their assistance and service due to Coronavirus regulations. Most medical resources are being allocated specifically to tackle the pandemic, leaving limited help to those who struggle with addiction. Statistically, opioid overdoses increased by 18% in March 2020 in comparison to March 2019. A further increase was shown in April 2020, where there had been a 29% growth compared to April 2019; this figure rose to 42% in May 2020. According to the statistics published by the American Medical Association, more than 40 states reported an increase in deaths during the pandemic relating to the use of opioids. In a few states, overall drug-related deaths increased by over 30%. Furthermore, many professionals have concluded that those using opioids are more vulnerable to COVID-19. They found that the stress caused by the pandemic combined with financial difficulties increases the likelihood of a substance abuse relapse. Moreover for many, there are very few distractions to divert them away from consuming drugs which causes more frequent and heavy usage. 

The ongoing political environment of the US further exacerbates the opioid crisis. The crisis  demands funding towards healthcare and hospitals, and as the crisis worsens, it is imperative that the next President outlines a proper plan to address these health issues. A vast array of policies have been proposed by both candidates, each differing in approach and method. The Democratic Party policies propose to offer universal health coverage while the Republican Party promises a reduction in imports of illicit Drugs. Despite these new proposed plans, Public Health experts have expressed grave concern and disappointment towards the current administration’s response to opioid abuse; they argue that more funding is required to tackle this national health crisis. 

Overall, the opioid crisis has been steadily infiltrating people’s lives for years now. In times of unprecedented crisis, it is evident now more than ever how badly numerous lives are being affected. As explained above, opioid use is highly addictive while using and during withdrawal, those who are using on a regular basis will feel very confined by their addiction. There are possibilities for significant change––however, these are all dependent on the policies and approaches those in power choose to take.

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