Attention To Opioid Epidemic Fades As Death Rates Rival The AIDS Crisis

Attention To Opioid Epidemic Fades As Death Rates Rival The AIDS Crisis

When taking into account total drug overdose deaths per year, the opioid epidemic today is worse than the AIDS epidemic in the late 20th century in terms of lives lost.

Matthew Schoonover was a lively, energetic 21-year-old who grew up in a wealthy suburb of Columbus, Ohio. Schoonover’s childhood was filled with all of the amenities a boy could have: a nice home, a loving family deeply engaged in his upbringing, and a group of supportive friends in a tight-knit community.

Throughout his life, Schoonover was busy. He kept involved in multiple extra-curricular activities, played sports throughout the year, was an active member of his church youth group, and went to camp in the summers.

“He really grew up in an ideal situation,” Ellen Schoonover, Matthew’s mother, said. “Never had an enemy.”

In high school, however, things took a turn for the worse. Matthew started partying with drugs and ended up becoming dependent on them, coming down with a disease that ultimately took his life.

As far as Matthew’s family knows, Schoonover’s drug use was limited to marijuana and alcohol in high school but escalated to opiates during his first year of college at Lee University in Tennessee. While it was ultimately Matthew’s ADHD that made school difficult, his struggle with addiction didn’t help, and Matthew later went to rehab.

The day after he emerged from a rehab facility in May of 2012, Matthew overdosed. Matthew’s story has become far too common in communities across the country, and many remain in denial about the issue.

Ellen, a former social worker, said she never suspected her son would begin using recreational drugs and always spoke to her two kids openly about the risks of substance abuse. Opioids, however, were a different category of substance abuse than marijuana and alcohol.

“Back then, I couldn’t even define what an opiate was,” Ellen told The Federalist. “I thought Paul and I had done every single thing right as parents to insulate our boys from the ‘bad drugs.’”

Since the loss of her son, Ellen and her husband, Paul, have been exceptionally active in fighting addiction to opioids, opening The Matthew B. Schoonover Educational Center in 2017 and speaking to those struggling with the disease while working with other non-profits to combat the crisis.

Few deny that the United States has an opioid crisis, but many deny that it is happening in their own backyards. The Ohio Opioid Education Alliance, an association with more than 60 corporate partners, has been running television ads across the state featuring parents living harmoniously in a fictional town called “Denial, Ohio.”

“It just feels safe and secure being in denial.”

“All the families living in denial feel the same as we do.”

“My boys would tell me anything.”

“He gets amazing grades.”

“Welcome to Denial.”

Unfortunately, the truth for the Schoonovers was much more real, and the epidemic remains in full-bloom while becoming white noise in our national dialogue.

Twenty candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination made their case to a prime-time television audience from Miami last month in a two-night event to debate the top issues affecting the country. The top topics largely focused on guns, immigration, health care, and beating Donald Trump. Largely absent from the candidates’ discussion was the opioid epidemic, a crisis that is beginning to fade into the background of our national conversation.

One question was asked on opioids throughout the entire set of debates, and the conversation moved on quickly. The word “opioid” was mentioned only three times in the first night’s debate. It was mentioned once during the second night. Meanwhile, the words “gun” and “guns” were mentioned 38 times on the first night and 26 times on the second night, according to transcripts from the Washington Post.

The opioid crisis has taken a heavy toll on the country, devastating families in both rural and urban areas. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last year show American life expectancy on a decline, a trend not seen since World War I, and opioids are in large part to blame.

Americans in 2017 can now expect to live 78.6 years, a tenth of a year decline from 2016, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Drug overdoses also hit a new high in 2017, killing 70,237 people, with 47,600 of those deaths resulting from opioids. Those dead in 2017 as a result of gun violence were nearly 40,000. That’s still 40,000 too high, but 7,000 fewer than deaths from opioids, yet gun violence keeps getting far more attention.

The opioid epidemic has also contributed to a number of different public health problems, including the accelerated spread of deadly infectious diseases. Judith Feinberg is a physician at West Virginia University who specializes in infectious diseases. Feinberg said the method by which people consume opioids, which is typically through injection, make individuals especially susceptible to catching these infections.

“When you inject drugs using unsterile equipment through unsterile skin and sharing that equipment and maybe even the drug with people who have these infections in their blood, this is a very efficient way to transmit HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C,” Feinberg told The Federalist. “I think that the majority of people who become addicted wind up injecting sooner or later, even if they start by snorting, smoking, or swallowing.”

Feinberg also noted the similarities between the HIV/AIDS crisis that the United States faced in the 1980s and 1990s, noting that people struggling with addiction to opioids are stigmatized, as people are with HIV and AIDS.

“Many people think of them as lacks of character or lacks of ethics or lack of will-power, which is not true,” Feinberg said. “Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, not a character flaw.”

In terms of death rates, the opioid epidemic is climbing to the level of the AIDS crisis of the ’80s and ’90s. At the peak of the AIDS epidemic, about 139 people were dying each day. As of January of this year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that more than 130 people die every day by overdosing on opioids. When taking into account total drug overdose deaths per year, the epidemic today is worse than the AIDS epidemic in the late 20th century in terms of lives lost.

Of course a key distinction between the two crises is the demographic groups they tended to affect. The AIDS epidemic centered on gay and bisexual men, whereas Feinberg noted the crisis with opioids has disproportionately affected rural communities.

“Rural communities are over-represented in what I call the 21st-century opioid epidemic,” Feinberg said.

While the opioid epidemic has hit rural communities especially hard, urban and suburban communities have certainly not been immune. David Royer is the executive director of the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County Ohio, home to the state’s capital and largest city with a population of nearly 900,000 residents. Royer said there were 520 overdose deaths in Franklin County in 2017, a 54 percent increase from 2016. He called the effects on his state “devastating.”

“There’s no aspect of our community, demographically, that is exempt from risk,” Royer told The Federalist, going on to talk about why the Denial Ohio campaign came to be. “I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that this is about somebody else.”

Royer also noted the effects on businesses in Columbus, where workers affected by the crisis, whether it be themselves struggling with addiction or a loved one, are losing productivity and driving up employer-based health expenses.

“It affects all aspects and all sectors of the economy,” Royer said.

The epidemic has indeed taken a serious toll on the American economy. According to data from the American Action Forum, a center-right D.C.-based think tank, the opioid crisis is responsible for keeping more than two million prime-age individuals aged 25 to 54 out of the labor force nationwide. Additionally, the same report notes that between 1999 and 2015, the decrease in U.S. labor force participation ultimately cost the economy 27 billion work hours, which slowed the real annual economic growth rate by 0.6 percentage points, costing $1.6 trillion in real output.

Ohio has been hit especially hard. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 2017, Ohio had the second-highest rate of deaths from drug overdoses involving opioids killing 4,293 people. Ohio’s death rate from opioids is more than double that of the national average.

The crisis has also cost the state more than $70 billion since 1999, according to a state-by-state analysis from the American Action Forum. The epidemic has prompted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to make combating it a focal point of his public service over the last decade, fighting the problem as Ohio’s attorney general for the last eight years before being sworn in as governor in January.

Alisha Nelson is the director of RecoveryOhio, an initiative DeWine started shortly after taking office.  Nelson highlighted the crisis’s effects on the state’s economy, noting that businesses in some areas have been struggling to find workers able to pass a drug test. Nelson also added that the recovery community has been trying to support employers who might be uncomfortable with hiring individuals who have recently struggled with addiction.

According to both Royer and Nelson, the opioid crisis remains in full-steam, with important shifts that are making the problem even more difficult to solve. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, has been becoming more prevalent on the drug market and is now being mixed with all kinds of substances already being abused.

“Now we are seeing fentanyl mixed with everything,” Nelson told The Federalist. “That is a really dangerous combination.”

Nelson, who also leads efforts against the crisis in DeWine’s attorney general office, touted the work of Ohio law enforcement in working diligently to deal with these substances in the streets in addition to treatment efforts.

“Law enforcement has really stepped up with the decrease in supply and decrease in demand,” Nelson said.

A lot of work remains to be done, however, and Nelson emphasized the need to assist families and especially children who have been affected by the crisis.

“We really have to get proactive on this thing,” Nelson said. “We have to stop the tide now, and make sure we wrap our arms around our kids who have experienced trauma.”

Tristan Justice is a staff writer at The Federalist focusing on the 2020 presidential campaigns. Follow him on Twitter at @JusticeTristan or contact him at [email protected]
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