Addiction to prescription drugs kill

Feb. 27, 2013 @ 05:48 PM

North Carolina has two drug problems.

One of them is the one we read about in the newspaper or see on television. It involves people selling and using illegal drugs.

The second drug problem is not so visible. It involves legal drugs misused or used carelessly. The legal drugs are opioids and include such familiar names as codeine, morphine and oxycodone. Simply put, they are painkillers, often prescribed to manage pain after surgery, a joint replacement or even the extraction of a tooth.

On Tuesday, Mark Sullivan and Catherine “Kay” Sanford told an overflow crowd at Perry Memorial Library how the use of opioids can lead to addiction or even death.

The event, titled “Opioid Addiction and Overdose: Addressing a Quiet Epidemic,” was the current offering in the monthly Lunch & Learn series sponsored by Cardinal Innovations Healthcare Solutions. Cosponsors for the event were Northern Piedmont Community Care and Project Lazarus.

Sullivan is project coordinator for the Chronic Pain Initiative of Northern Piedmont Community Care, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with physicians and other health care professionals to improve health care services in the region made up of Vance, Granville, Warren, Franklin and Person counties.

Sullivan’s message was simple: Misuse of prescription drugs can be dangerous, especially if the drugs contain opiates. Overdosing on these drugs is a leading cause of accidental deaths.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that drug overdose death rates in the U.S. have more than tripled since 1990. In 2008, more than 36,000 people died from drug overdoses. Most of those deaths were caused by prescription drugs, almost three-fourths of them opioid pain relievers. 

Sullivan showed graphs charting increases in the number of prescriptions written for opioids and the parallel increases in overdose deaths related to opioids.

“As the number of prescriptions increases, overdose deaths increase,” Sullivan said.

“This is not a law enforcement issue,” he said. “It’s a problem of over-prescription, misuse, holding onto drugs too long and sharing them.”

“There’s a lot we can do as citizens,” he said.
His recommendations:

• Take only your own medications.

• Keep them in a safe place, preferably locked up, especially if there are children in the home.

• Dispose of unused medications.

• Never share them.

He described Project Lazarus, which focused on Wilkes County in western North Carolina. The county had a death rate from opioid overdosing that was four times the national rate. After Project Lazarus intervened in 2008, the death rate dropped substantially over the next four years.

“We can use these medications safely,” Sullivan said. “They don’t have to kill people.”

He introduced Sanford, who previously held the position of vice-president for research and evaluation for Project Lazarus.

Sanford approached the podium on crutches.

“Those who don’t believe in opiates never had a hip replacement,” she said. She has had both hips replaced, the most recent one in January. She said there are legitimate uses for painkillers. The question is how to make their use safer and less subject to abuse.

Citing the number of deaths from overdosing on opiates, Sanford asked, “Who are these people? They’re not some druggie living under the bridge. They’re our parents, our children, our neighbors.”

Sanford described the progressive steps in an overdose — lowered pain, a sense of euphoria, diminishing of motor skills, inability to make rational decisions, restricted breathing and, finally, death.

The purpose of prescribing opiates is to shut down the pain receptors in the brain, she said. When an overdose takes place, other functions are also affected, and breathing slows down until the heart stops.

“Too many receptors are closed down for the body to maintain its vital functions,” Sanford said.

That’s when death occurs.

Sanford walked the audience through the steps to take if they suspect a person of suffering from an overdose: identifying the signs of an overdose, actions to reverse it, calling 911.

She described the use of naloxone to counteract the effects of an overdose. Naloxone is a non-narcotic antidote to drug overdose. Within one to three minutes after naloxone is administered, the person can go from near death to the pre-opioid state, with all its pain.

“It’s the fastest withdrawal experience you’ll ever see,” she said. “They’ll be in agony. This is a life-altering experience. If we keep them alive, maybe there will be a better tomorrow.
“We need to save lives in North Carolina.”

Contact the writer at dirvine@hendersondispatch.com.