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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Opioid crisis: community awareness and effort required

Published: Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Times-News Columnist

As I read the articles in January by Times-News reporter Rebecca Walter about the opioid crisis in Henderson County, four words kept reappearing in one form or another—community awareness and effort.

It’s hard not to be aware. Every day, there’s another article or report about the increasing numbers of addictions and deaths from opioids nationwide. In North Carolina, more than 12,000 people have died from opioid overdose since 1999, according to the governor’s office. The Sheriff’s Office estimates that three-to-four deaths per month can be attributed to overdose in Henderson County.

Efforts are increasing locally. Local law enforcement and first responders now carry Narcan or Naloxone, an opiate antidote that works to block the effects and reverse the overdose. Pardee Hospital and Park Ridge Health are evaluating prescribing measures and communications about opioid risks with patients. Families who have experienced the addiction or death of a loved one are joining community leaders to partner with Hope Rx, an organization working to bring about that needed community awareness and effort.

Awareness means knowing why opioids, such as Oxycodone (OxyContin) or Hydrocodone (Vicodin) are prescribed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for health conditions such as cancer. They are also sometimes prescribed for chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis. Though they can be an important part of treatment, opioids also come with risks.

The risks include addiction and overdose, especially with prolonged use. For example, even when taken properly, your tolerance to the drug can change over time meaning you might need to take more of the drug for the same pain relief. Physical dependence can develop causing symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped. And an opioid overdose, often marked by slowed breathing, can cause sudden death.

The CDC states that risk factors for prescription opioid abuse and overdose that make people particularly vulnerable include:

  • Obtaining overlapping prescriptions from multiple providers and pharmacies.
  • Taking high daily dosages of prescription pain relievers.
  • Having mental illness or a history of alcohol or other substance abuse.
  • Living in rural areas and having low income.

But the main point to remember is that anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them. And once addicted, it is hard to stop.

If you are prescribed opioids for pain, keep in mind the following tips to help ensure you are getting the safest, most effective pain management possible:

Work with your doctor

Know your options and consider ways to manage your pain that do not include opioids. For example, after an operation, you will have pain, but the main goal should be to be functional, not pain-free according to Dr. David Ellis, Pardee UNC Healthcare chief medical officer (Walter’s Jan. 18 article).

  • Take and store opioids properly
  • Never take opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed.
  • Never sell or share prescription opioids.
  • Store prescription opioids in a secure place, out of reach of others (including children, family, friends and visitors).

If you have unused prescription opioids at the end of your treatment, bring your medications to the lobby of the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office any weekday (excluding county holidays) from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Don’t take opioids with alcohol and other medications like:

  • Benzodiazepines (such as Xanax and Valium)
  • Muscle relaxants (such as Soma or Flexeril)
  • Hypnotics (such as Ambien or Lunesta)
  • Other prescription opioids

Be encouraged that individuals and organizations in Henderson County are working together to bring about community awareness of the opioid crisis. Mark your calendars now to participate in some of the following events to learn more about opioids and what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from opioid abuse, addiction and overdose:

We Are Hope Week, March 26-30. Each day Henderson County Public Schools’ four middle and six high schools will have individual activities and assemblies in partnership with HopeRx to take a public stand against substance abuse. At each school, students will sign pledge banners bearing the school’s mascot and a pledge to be substance free. On Friday, March 30, at 12 p.m., all 10 banners will be hung from the Henderson County Historic Courthouse pillars. Sheriff McDonald, Mayor Volk and Superintendent Bo Caldwell will address the students.

Wednesday, March 28, Henderson County Commissioners will sponsor an Opioid Forum from 12-4. This is by invitation only and is for strategic leaders in the community.

Thursday, March 29, 12:30-2:00 pm, leaders from Henderson and Buncombe Counties will meet to have a cross-county intimate conversation with Sam Quinones, the award-winning journalist and author of Dreamland: The True Tale of American’s Opiate Epidemic, about the state of the opioid epidemic in our communities and how best to work together to combat the effects.

Thursday evening, March 29, 6:30 - 9:00 p.m., Quinones will speak at Blue Ridge Community College’s Conference Hall to share the importance of a community response to this epidemic that is sweeping our nation and affecting our surrounding communities. Tickets are $5 and available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sam-quinones-award-winning-author-of-dreamland-speaks-on-the-opiate-epidemic-tickets-42359906621?aff=efbeventtix.

Friday evening, March 30, 7:00 p.m., a Hope Candlelight Vigil will be held at the Historic Courthouse in honor of those lost to, affected by, or battling addiction.

Saturday, April 7, 9:00 a.m., Nik’s Hope Run, a 5K to raise awareness about addiction, will take place at Patton Park.

To bring further attention to the opioid crisis in our county, the March and April Public Health Columns will address Naloxone and signs of an overdose. For more information, videos and other resources, visit hendersoncountync.org/health and click on the Opioid Crisis and Naloxone link.

Kim Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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