Ken Plum: Opioid epidemic in Virginia

ken plumWhen my friend August Wallmeyer wrote his book, The Extremes of Virginia, Southwest, Southside and the Eastern Shore: Two Separated and Unequal Commonwealths. Rural, Poor and Largely Unknown(Dementi Books, 2016), he included a chapter on illegal drug use for obvious reasons.

In 2014 for the first time on record fatal drug overdoses became the most common cause of accidental death in the Commonwealth, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. As the Secretary of Health and Human Resources reported to Mr. Wallmeyer, “In 2015 we lost more than a thousand Virginians to opioid or heroin overdoses. More Virginians now die from drug overdoses than from car accidents.” For another reason, the rate of fatal drug/poison overdoses in the poorest areas of the state are 47 percent higher than those in Virginia as a whole. The picture has been getting worse.

Last week the state health commissioner Dr. Marissa J. Levine declared opioid addiction to be a public health emergency in Virginia. She said the Commonwealth has seen a 77 percent increase in opioid deaths from 2012 to 2016. So great is the concern about this epidemic that Commissioner Levine issued a standing order that allows all Virginians to obtain the drug Naloxone without a specific prescription. Naloxone is used to treat narcotic overdoes in emergency situations. Persons who know someone who is struggling with opioid addiction are advised to visit a local pharmacy to obtain Naloxone and keep it on hand for possible overdose emergencies. For more information on Naloxone, go to getnaloxonenow.org. Another website of Virginia government offers resources on how to best discuss addiction with someone, vaaware.com/treatment-recovery/.

Attorney General Mark Herring is extremely active in combating drug abuse problems in Virginia. A documentary he produced on the heroin and prescription drug epidemic in Virginia is available to individuals and organizations for their use. Preview it at hardesthitva.com. The Attorney General has led the effort to distribute 80,000 drug disposal kits to individuals through the Department of Health and to hospitals, law enforcement and nonprofits. These kits will allow for the safe disposal of prescriptions that could be abused by others. There is a strong link between misuse of prescription drugs, opioid addiction, and the use of heroin when prescription drugs become too expensive or are no long available. Some studies found that half of young people who use heroin got started abusing prescription opioids. The Attorney General reported that more than 500 people went to a Virginia emergency room from a heroin overdose in the first four months of 2016, a 250 percent increase over 2015.

No longer is the problem of opioid abuse one that is primarily in the poorer, “extremes” of the state. It can be found in all areas of the state affecting people of all income levels and backgrounds. The strong response to the need by the Attorney General and the State Health Commissioner are very important. Coordination among agencies and work at the local level to end root causes are critical. Fortunately they are underway to end this epidemic.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.


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