Aug. 30--"Nobody wants to grow up to be a junkie. But the sad fact is that people become addicted to drugs," said Shawn Lang, director of public policy for the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition.
In the last decade, one of the fastest rising addictions has been to opiates, synthetic versions of opium. And many addicts say their addiction began as part of a legitimate pain management therapy in which they were prescribed pain medications such as Vicodin or Oxycontin, by a licensed health professional.
More than 2,200 Connecticut residents have died in the last 11 years from unintentionally overdosing on opiates. As a result, drug overdoses in general have become the leading cause of accidental death among the state's adult population. Since 1990, accidental drug overdoses in the U.S. have quadrupled, claiming the lives of more than 26,000 Americans every year. It's not only a problem here, but throughout the world.
Ten years ago, an Australian Salvation Army worker recognized that fact and established International Overdose Awareness Day, intended to give people the opportunity to publicly mourn those who've died of an overdose without shame or guilt, and to educate people about the growing problem.
Street drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, were once the source of blame for most addictions, but now, "the fastest growing population of people at risk for overdose is people using prescription pain medications," said Mark Kinzly, drug treatment advocate for AIDS Project Hartford.
And too much, even 1 milligram too much of a prescription painkiller or other opiate, can trigger an overdose. Opiates suppress the respiratory system, causing the person to stop breathing, Kinzly said.
As part of Tuesday's observance, AIDS Project Hartford and the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition will launch a renewed campaign to convince lawmakers to pass a "Good Samaritan 911" law during the upcoming legislative session.
The two groups say such a measure would help reduce the number of deaths from an accidental drug overdose.
The Good Samaritan law would do two things: encourage people who witness an overdose to call 911 without fear of arrest and broaden the availability of Narcan (naloxone), a prescription medication that can reverse the deadly effects of an opiate-related overdose. Narcan can restore normal breathing in two to three minutes when given to someone who has overdosed on an opiate.
"When we have conversations with legislators they're a little hesitant to embrace this measure because they don't want to look soft on drugs," Lang said.
The proposed legislation would allow licensed health care professionals to prescribe Narcan to someone at risk of overdosing on opiates without being subject to prosecution or sued for malpractice.
So far, two states, New Mexico and Washington state, have passed Good Samaritan overdose laws. Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Rhode Island are considering similar measures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Expanding Narcan's availability could save lives, but some medical experts say it must be administered by someone who's been properly trained in its use.
"It's only effective immediately if it's administered intravenously or as a nasal spray. If it's administered intra-muscularly it may not be as effective. You have to know how to correctly administer it," said Dr. Leonard Lev, medical director of Connecticut Valley Hospital, which houses Merritt Hall, one of five inpatient addiction treatment facilities operated by the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Like other health professionals around the country, Lev has, in recent years, witnessed an increase in the number of people who've accidentally overdosed on opiates.
"Without a doubt the cause for such an increase has been the vast majority of overdoses related to self-administered or self-prescribed prescription pain medications," Lev said.
Last year, Merritt Hall treated nearly 2,000 patients for drug or alcohol addiction said Susan Wolfe, division director of addiction services.
Altogether, 50,376 state residents age18 and older were admitted to state drug treatment centers for addiction last year, according to DMHAS.
"We're really up against a tremendous increase in prescription painkillers," Lev said.
About half of the facility's clients say their addiction to opiates came about as a result of being prescribed medication to alleviate pain, Lev said. And when they can no longer obtain prescription pain medication they often turn to heroin.
"No one is spared. This happens to middle-class people, upper-class people and professionals," Lev said. And children -- the clinic has also seen an increase in young people age 12 to 17 using prescription pain medications that haven't been prescribed for them, Lev added.
"People think this is only happening in Hartford or Bridgeport, but 148 of Connecticut's 169 towns have recorded deaths from drug overdoses in the past decade," Lang said.
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