The number of Americans who died of drug overdoses last year was nearly 60,000. That’s more than three times the capacity of Oracle Arena in Oakland, home of the Golden State Warriors.
It also represents the largest year-over-year increase ever recorded in the United States.
According to an analysis by the New York Times of records from state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners across the country, the number of deaths nationwide has increased 19 percent since 2015, making it now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.
Shocking? It should be. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Much of this is linked to a well-known crisis — a surge in addictions compounded by the rising use of synthetic opioid drugs such as fentanyl, a potent pain medication.
It’s a problem that has reached epidemic proportions and is as much a local story as it is a national one. Local health officials have raised concerns about increasing addictions and overdoses in Sonoma County for some time.
During one 10-day period in April alone, five people — three men and two women, all between the ages of 25 and 66 — died in the Santa Rosa area due to heroin overdoses. The surge of deaths prompted the Sonoma County Coroner’s Office officials to issue a warning that a particularly potent batch of the drug could be in circulation on the streets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of annual deaths from overdoses in the country have quadrupled since the start of the century.
The opioid addiction crisis has reached the point that the Ohio attorney general on May 31 filed a lawsuit against five leading opioid painkiller manufacturers. The suit contends the companies knowingly misled the public about the addiction risks associated with the painkillers.
It would certainly be in the nation’s best interests to know if and how much these companies contributed to this crisis by refusing to come clean about the risks involved. Keep in mind it was the pharmaceutical manufacturers who claimed early on that opioid painkillers wouldn’t be addictive. But the truth of the matter is there’s plenty of blame to go around, including among health care professionals who, even after evidence of the addictive power of these drugs was known, were guilty of over-prescribing the pills. Also to blame is a system that allows “doctor shopping” by patients who obtain opioid prescriptions from as many as four or more prescribers. According to local figures, an estimated one in four Sonoma County residents has an opioid prescription during any given year.
This epidemic is having far-reaching impacts. County officials say opioid abuse was a contributing factor to the sudden 17 percent increase in the number of child abuse or neglect cases recorded last year. Of the 2,220 cases investigated by Child Protective Services, drug and alcohol abuse were a factor in 42 percent.
County health officials have been confronting this problem for some time. But the community needs a more integrated and high-profile approach, one that involves widespread public participation and regular reports on the progress of efforts being made. We simply cannot accept these addictions as a way of life — or death.