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Editorial: Staggering opioid epidemic deserves everyone's attention

On Saturday, the Herald's front-page story reported on the opioid crisis in Grand Forks.

Expect more such stories. A lot more.

Because it's impossible to overstate this threat, which has become the worst drug crisis in U.S. history, and now kills more people each year than car accidents and gunshot wounds combined.

Here are just some of the numbers, from a story last week on Vox.com:

▇ "In 2015, more than 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, nearly two-thirds of which were linked to opioids like Percocet, OxyContin, heroin, and fentanyl. That's more drug overdose deaths than any other period in U.S. history — even more than past heroin epidemics, the crack epidemic or the recent meth epidemic.

▇ "Drug overdoses in 2015 also killed more people in the US than HIV/AIDS did during its peak in 1995. So just as HIV/AIDS lives in the American mind as a horrible epidemic, the current opioid epidemic should, too.

▇ "Opioid overdoses are one reason U.S. life expectancy declined for the first time in decades. ...

"There are many causes behind the drop, including rising rates of diabetes, obesity, and suicide. But a big reason for the decrease was the rise in alcohol poisonings and drug overdoses."

▇ Opioid death-rates are worse in New England, a number of Appalachian states and the Southwest than in the upper Midwest.

"In 2015, the five states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose were West Virginia (41.5 per 100,000), New Hampshire (34.3 per 100,000), Kentucky (29.9 per 100,000), Ohio (29.9 per 100,000), and Rhode Island (28.2 per 100,000)," the Centers for Disease Control reports.

In contrast, the 2015 numbers in North Dakota and Minnesota were 8.6 and 10.6, respectively, per 100,000.

But valley residents shouldn't take too much comfort in those numbers, because that's about where most of the high-death-rate states were only a few short years ago.

▇ Here's a fascinating figure: According to a recent CDC study, "opioid prescriptions longer than five days in length significantly increased the likelihood of continued opioid use both one and three years later," as Vox.com reported.

Or as a CDC physician put it in the story, "[For people who] take an opioid for 10 days, almost one in five will still be taking opioids one year later."

What can society do? Ratchet down dramatically on prescribing painkillers—especially for long-term pain relief, for which opioids have not been proven effective anyway.

Make treatments for addicts more available. Accept the proven usefulness of methadone and other "opioid agonist" therapies.

Above all, learn more about this problem's gigantic and growing scale. Because that's the first step in implementing some of the solutions mentioned above.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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