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Opioids, Our Problem Too

Op/Ed By Julie Hutchinson


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Julie Hutchinson MPA, BSN, RN, Community Health Nurse

I am concerned, first as my young adult kids’ mom, and, further, as a community health nurse, who has served the Rochester region for close to 30 years.

I worry about what I perceive to be a dangerous misperception in the African-American community. I have heard it said, repeatedly, that the opioid and heroin overdose problem is not about us.

This epidemic is unprecedented, and the worst drug epidemic in US history.

The national and statewide opioid concern of today simply cannot be compared to the heroin problem of the 70’s. It is about mortality rates (number of deaths). And, the difference numerically is exponential, which is a simple fact, and not race related.

Yes, it is true that, today, most of the deaths are accounted for by the non-Hispanic white population. And, there are reasons for that, which I won’t bother getting into. Let’s just say it’s about prescribers.

However, I will point out that similarly, we did not see ourselves in the HIV/AIDS crisis of the early 80s either, when primarily only gay white males were affected. Today, African Americans account for the greatest number of newly diagnosed HIV cases in the US, according to a recently published CDC data report.

This is unfortunate, as I believe this trend may largely have been preventable, knowing what we have always known about the spread of disease, and if primary prevention had been more fully implemented, initially,  in our communities.

My point here, in sharing this concern, is to push the envelope on primary prevention around opioid addiction, and overdose, in communities of color, before it becomes a bigger problem.

Let’s get educated. Let’s be in the conversation, and at the table. Understand that heroin is unusually cheap, and easily accessible, which has caused its proliferation, especially with those under the age of 35, and others with limited resources.

I expect this to reach the urban, and the poor.  A bag of heroin, called a deck, can be purchased for less than a pack of cigarettes. Though African Americans are not significantly represented in the largest segment of this epidemic, those who abuse prescription opioid pain relievers (OPR’s), understand that intravenous heroin deaths have steeply risen since 2010, with 94 deaths in Monroe county for the year 2014, alone. The majority of them happened in the last three months of the year.

Opioids have also recently started to show up in cocaine, which is a more prevalent substance for abuse by African Americans.  While OPR’s are primarily obtained by prescription, heroin for injection, or inhale, can be accessed on the street, and mostly in urban areas.

Please talk to your kids, today, about the strong addictive nature of opioids, and heroin, including the risk for overdose and death. Get the facts, and share them. Don’t wait until it is too late, and on your doorstep. We will all be asking, ‘How did it get here?’ similarly to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

For more information about the opioid and heroin epidemic, start by talking to your family doctor.