Opioid drug overdose crisis is ripping up communities of color

cdcoverdosedeaths-300x175The opioid drug abuse and overdose crisis is not only smashing fatality records, it also is slamming poorer people and communities of color and taking a savage toll on younger black Americans.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has analyzed data from Washington, D.C., and 25 states, finding in its study published online, as the New York Times reported:

“Overall, overdose deaths jumped 30% from 2019 to 2020 … Deaths among black people rose 44%, about twice the increase in deaths among white people (22%) or Hispanic people (21%). Deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives increased 39%. Measured as a portion of the population, in 2020, deaths among black people were higher than in any other racial or ethnic group — 39 per 100,000, compared with 31 for white people, 36 for American Indian and Alaska Native people and 21 for Hispanic people. ‘The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among blacks and American Indian and Alaska Native people may partly be due to health inequities, like unequal access to substance use treatment and treatment biases,’ said Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC.”

NPR reported startling details that CDC experts found in their research:

“Speaking to reporters at a briefing, the CDC’s Mbabazi Kariisa, the main author of the report, said, ‘Younger black people, 15 to 24 years old, had the largest increase in overdose deaths — 86%.’ And the death rate among black men 65 and older was seven times that among white men in the same age group. The report also found that counties with the highest income inequality had the highest rates of overdose deaths, especially among racial and ethnic minority groups. ‘Among black people, overdose [death] rates in counties with the most income inequality were more than twice those of counties that had less income inequality,’ said Kariisa. Income inequality is known to have a bigger impact on the lives of minorities, she added: ‘This can lead to lack of stable housing, reliable transportation and health insurance, making it even more difficult for people to access treatment and other support services.’”

Here is another distressing element of the experts’ finding, NPR reported:

“Kariisa and her colleagues also found that members of racial and ethnic minority groups were the least likely to have had access to treatment for substance abuse. ‘The percentage with evidence of prior treatment for substance use was lowest for black people, at 1 in 12,’ said Kariisa. Among American Indian, Alaska Native and Hispanic people, only 1 in 10 had received substance use treatment in the past, she said. ‘In fact, most people who died by overdose had no evidence of getting substance use treatment before their death.’”

PBS interviewed Dr. Edwin Chapman a physician in Washington, D.C., who specializes in treating addiction. He said he and others have seen the awful results from the rise of fentanyl as a street drug. It is a synthetic opioid, easily made and with whopping potency in even minute quantities. Experts have long warned about its lethal effects and those have combined with a long history of drug abuse problems in communities of color, Chapman told PBS this of the overdose statistics:

“So, we have known for some time that our population, which is 95% African American, even though, in terms of overdose deaths, even though in the District of Columbia, we account for only 46% of the population. But the difference is that our epidemic started with street drugs 40, 50, 60 years ago with heroin. But, in 2014, that heroin transitioned to fentanyl. So, we saw 20% fentanyl in 2015. And it gradually increased over the next five years to now we’re seeing 95% fentanyl in our street drugs. And fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.”

The CDC has urged lawmakers to provide more resources to battle the opioid crisis, reporting this:

“Comprehensive, community-based prevention and response efforts should incorporate proven, culturally responsive actions that address disparities in drug overdose deaths and the inequities that contribute to them. Increasing access to proven treatment for all people who have substance use disorder(s) is a critical part of their care and recovery. Harm reduction services can further reduce overdoses and save lives. Harm reduction services can include naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and referral to substance use disorder treatment. Syringe services programs can serve as a valuable way to reach people who inject drugs and provide them with overdose prevention education and opportunities to link to substance use disorder treatment.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by dangerous and bankrupting drugs, especially prescribed products like addictive painkillers from Big Pharma.

The opioid crisis — fostered for years by Big Pharma, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and others in the U.S. health care system — has entered its latest and notably bad stage with easily and cheaply made, exceedingly powerful synthetic painkillers like fentanyl flooding the country.

The civil justice system has proved to be one of the more potent ways for individuals, families, cities, counties, states, Indian tribes, and others to seek financial redress and a modicum of justice for those who inundated the country with billions more prescription pills than patients could ever consume, fueling the nightmare we’re now experiencing.

Lawsuits have not only started to deliver financial compensation that desperate victims, their loved ones, and communities can use to help those with addiction as well as to cover the whopping public costs of dealing with the opioid crisis, they also have helped to expose the nefarious conduct, especially by Big Pharma, in creating this steadily worsening mess.

As the CDC noted in its report on the opioid nightmare:

“Drug overdose death disparities are widening at the same time as a record-breaking 92,000 lives were lost to drug overdoses during 2020. More must be done to prevent overdoses and deaths.”

Illustration credit: U.S. CDC
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