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Centre County, Pennsylvania is Grappling with Opioid Epidemic

The heroin and prescription opioid abuse epidemic has taken over an entire nation and its multifaceted effects (i.e. loss of human life, social impact, financial costs etc) are beyond devastating. Deaths from drug overdoses have surged in almost every county across the US, reaching levels similar to the HIV epidemic at its peak ( in the late 1980s and early 1990s). The disease of opiate addiction knows no prejudice and continues to affect people of all ages, races, ethnicities, backgrounds and social statuses, both genders, the ordinary and the famous, the poor and the rich alike. Tragically cut short by drug overdoses, the lives of music and film icons such as the likes of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, more recently, Prince ( who died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, an opioid painkiller that is up to 50 times more powerful than the illicit opioid heroin, according to the Midwest Medical Examiner's report) testify to the fact that opiate addiction has no mercy and can affect everyone.

The epidemic of opioid overdose deaths ripples across America and the Centre County in the state of Pennsylvania is no exception. In early June, policy makers and legislators in Harrisburg positioned the heroin use and abuse issue at the top of the list of lethal diseases in the state. Opioid overdose deaths have skyrocketed in Pennsylvania - according to recent reports, on average, 9 people are dying of prescription and illicit opiate overdoses in the state; in Centre County alone, the number of deaths from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses reached 34 in 2014-2015. Earlier this year, Centre County law enforcement officers began carrying Narcan ( naloxone) in their patrol vehicles. Naloxone is the emergency, life-saving treatment for suspected or known opiate overdose.

Additionally, in October 2015, Pennsylvania Physician General Rachel Levine signed a statewide standing order for naloxone (Narcan) that gives everyone in the state a prescription for the opioid overdose antidote. To reiterate what the standing order means, Rachel Levine began a pharmacy tour across Pennsylvania this year to remind both pharmacy staff and residents that a prescription is no longer required to obtain this life-saving medicine. Levine also emphasized that naloxone works by reversing the effects of opiates, is not a narcotic itself and it cannot be abused. Naloxone reverses the effects of an overdose by helping patients breathe again. The nasal spray Narcan, which costs $25 to $40 a dose, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in November last year. According to the manufacturer Adapt Pharma, administering naloxone intranasally does not require any special kind of training.

Over the past few years, a significant number of mainstream media reports have revealed the changing face of opioid addiction in the US. While the number of opioid users within non-white communities has been gradually decreasing since 2000, the demographic affected by the highest increase in prescription opiate and heroin use are whites between the ages of 18-45, according to the National Institute For Drug Abuse. The opiate abuse epidemic is hitting young adults more than any other age group; the heroin use among young Americans has increased 109% since 2004. It's estimated that 1 in 20 Americans over the age of 12 has used a prescription pain reliever non-medically within any given month. And the epidemic knows no boundaries; the abuse of heroin and prescription opioids has already migrated to the suburbs and rural areas.

Centre County law enforcement and treatment providers believe that the main factors which have contributed to the rising opiate crisis in the community include the border security issue, which makes it easier for drug dealers to bring illicit drugs into Centre County, a health care system that makes it far less expensive and quicker to prescribe painkillers than to treat the underlying cause of the pain, as well as the ability for some people to manufacture synthetic opioids like fentanyl to be sold on the streets. Centre County, like all other communities across the nation, must come together to figure out how to fix this stringent issue and the first steps towards identifying the best solutions are destigmatizing the opiate addict who seeks help and providing both resources and support for those whose lives depend on them.

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