Opinion

Midwest Heroin Epidemic Worsens with Public Ignorance

Graphic courtesy of the CDCThe CDC graphs the number of U.S. opioid overdose deaths per 100,000 people from 2000-15. While deaths resultant from prescribed opioids has tapered, those resultant from heroin and synthetic opioids have rapidly increased in the past few years.

The use of opiates has been on the rise in the United States in the past few years. Of the nearly 50,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths in 2014, approximately 61 percent involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Heroin is leading this opiate epidemic. Its abuse and addiction have risen in most populations and demographic groups in the United States, according to reports from the CDC.

But as of recent, heroin isn’t only the most popular opiate in the country, it’s also one of the most addictive — and deadly.

And this isn’t news to the Midwest.

Will County, one of five Illinois counties comprising the Chicagoland area, is experiencing a “third wave” of a heroin epidemic — the strongest yet — said Kathleen Burke, the county’s director of substance abuse initiatives, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

In Cook County, there’s been an increased use in both heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opiate similar to heroin but reportedly more potent and more deadly. In Chicago alone, 487 heroin-related deaths and 420 fentanyl-related deaths were confirmed in 2016 as compared to 345 and upward of 71 in the previous year, respectively, according to Chicago Department of Public Health.

And the way we view those who are addicted has never been flattering.

In spring 2017, CNN’s Carol Costello received criticism as a result of writing about the drug’s devastating effect on her Ohio hometown and proposing expanded medical coverage for those affected.

One commenter wrote in response to Costello’s piece, “While tragic … addicts are addicts of their own choosing. I don’t want to fund their bad choices in life.”

Costello acknowledged the culture that has bred this ignorant statement. She wrote, “We [who grew up in the Midwest] are loath to ask for help. Especially from the government. We pride ourselves for our self-sufficiency, sense of responsibility, moral behavior and hard work.”

But many studies have shown the realities of addiction reach far deeper than simple willpower.

One study conducted by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai showed heroin use can even lead to physical changes in the user’s DNA, ultimately affecting the way the brain sets goals and experiences reward.

It’s shameful to punish those struggling with addiction — classified medically as a disease.

Costello and those who agree with her wish to reform the way the public views those who are addicted to drugs — real people who are struggling with real physical and mental challenges to overcome. Many times, those addicted require the intervention of loved ones and medical professionals and assistance from the state.

State government can increase access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) as an active response, which consists of counseling and behavioral therapy combined with medication. By expanding Medicaid, or access to affordable private insurance plans, the government can ensure access to services like these that can potentially save hundreds of lives.

A few solutions have also been proposed by the CDC to prevent and reverse the effects of heroin addiction.

By identifying high-risk individuals, doctors may be able to prescribe alternatives to opioid painkillers when necessary and thus be able to prevent future opioid addictions and overdoses.

Similarly, naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin drug overdose, can also potentially save lives of users who are already addicted.

Scientists are currently at work engineering opioids with the same painkilling advantages without the addictive side effects.

Meanwhile, the future of this country’s drug epidemic comes down to the question of whether or not the state and federal government — and us as a society — can acknowledge the need for reform with the will and energy to implement it.

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Opinion Editor

Gabriela Valencia is a part-time believer in magic and a full-time believer in light. She studies chemistry and writes poetry at Loyola University Chicago and works as Opinion Editor for The PHOENIX.

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