Pa., U.S. push attention to opiods abuse crisis

Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-day series about heroin and its impact on Centre County. Next we will look at the impact on law enforcement and the courts. Additional installments will focus on medical and counseling services and families and addicts.

Everyone knows what an epidemic is.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s a little bit more than your typical illness. In fact, it is “an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area.”

It’s something that makes sense when you are talking about chicken pox or the flu, but drug use?

Let’s look at the numbers.

Back to the CDC, and we look at the flu. You know, the flu, the “nothing to worry about” sickness that lays people up for a couple days, makes for headaches at work when it sweeps through the office and sells a lot of over-the-counter medication every year. A disease that has its own season.

In 2009, one particular strain, the H1N1 swine flu, killed 12,469 people in the United States. A simple everyday illness took a giant leap and killed roughly twice the population of Bellefonte.

So what about opioids?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines opioids as “medications that relieve pain.” But we’re not talking about aspirin.

Opioids are the hard stuff, the ones that quash pain by talking to the brain and interrupting the conversation with pain receptors. They are things like morphine, Vicodin, oxycodone, codeine, etc.

And heroin.

The CDC said deaths related to those drugs — whether legally prescribed, illegally acquired or straight-up street versions — have been escalating since 1999. From that year to 2014, there were 165,000 deaths attributed to overdoses from prescribed opioids alone.

In 2014, the federal Department of Health and Human Services said that 28,000 people died from opioid use. That’s enough people to fill the Bryce Jordan Center, Rec Hall and Eisenhower Auditorium, and still have the population of Philipsburg left over.

“This crisis costs all of us dearly,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in as statement this month. “The crisis is everywhere and impacts everyone regardless of ZIP code, gender, race, ethnicity or income.”

It definitely affects Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is one of the top states where people are dying from the addictive drugs, although it isn’t one of the worst for opioid use. About 19 to 35 people out of every 100,000 Pennsylvanians died from opiod overdose in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“This really is an epidemic,” said U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Howard.

A former professional in the mental health industry, Thompson said the solution is to treat it is the same way you would treat any infectious disease.

“The best way to beat an epidemic is to surround it,” he said.

For Thompson, that means with legislation. He was one of those who worked on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed in Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama this month.

The legislation is multi-pronged for that surrounding effect Thompson mentioned. It addresses awareness and education, puts lifesaving naloxone in the hands of more law enforcement and first responders, puts resources in prisons and jails, takes more unused prescription medication off the streets, as well as putting out treatment and prevention programming for both prescription drugs and heroin.

The one thing that isn’t mentioned? Hard lines for locking up offenders.

Thompson said he believes that is a lesson legislators learned from aggressive stances on crack and cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s.

“This is really about help,” he said. “It’s about reclaiming lives.”

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf is also putting opioids in the forefront. This month he has put a target on the way opioids are prescribed.

“By reducing the pattern of over-prescribing painkillers that have such a high risk for abuse, we are fighting back against opioid abuse and heroin use before those habits even begin,” he said.

At the same time, the legislature in Harrisburg is also addressing it. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, is conducting hearings around the state on the issue.

For him, a recurring theme has been the lack of enough treatment for people who need help.

“We’d like to look at the preventive part. One of the things I was still very frustrated to hear is that we just lack facilities, bed space, to send people to for help,” Benninghoff said last month. “That’s something that’s a problem all across Pennsylvania.”

There are lots of people asking questions, lots of possible answers and lots of discussion.

But it can’t stop there.

“You can’t just write good laws to address it,” said Thompson. “You have to monitor .You need to do oversight. It’s incredibly important.”