Survey finds Americans still confused about opioids

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Several years into the opioid epidemic, less than a quarter of Americans can correctly identify seven commonly prescribed opioids.

Sherie Schaffer, director of clinical operations for Bradford Health Services, shared the results of the study during the recent "Journey Series," a free weekly webinar on addiction and recovery. 

The survey found that though 76 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed thought they knew when they are being prescribed an opioid, only 22 percent could correctly identify such medications, and nearly 73 percent incorrectly identified oxytocin, a hormone used to assist in childbirth, as an opioid prescription.

"It's important to know if you're prescribed this medication because one in 16 people who are prescribed opioids become addicted," Schaffer said, adding that seven days is the length of time it takes to become addicted.

Dependency can occur in an even shorter amount of time. Schaffer shared a story of experiencing withdrawal symptoms after two days of taking Oxycodone following a surgery. 

Parents should be especially vigilant about prescriptions given to their children considering that 90 percent of Americans who are addicted began using before age 18, she added.

"A lot of times opioid addiction does begin with an injury or typically after surgery," Schaffer said.

Later in the presentation, Schaffer advised parents to talk to their teen and lock up any prescription medications in the home.

Schaffer identified three waves of the epidemic — an increase in the prescription of opioids in the 1990s, an increase of heroin overdoses that began in 2010 and an increase in overdoses related to synthetic opioids.

Between 1999 and 2018, nearly 450,000 people died of an opioid overdose — enough to fill up Jordan-Hare Stadium more than five times or Bryant-Denny Stadium.

In addition to doctors being pressured to increasing the disbursement of opioids to help patients with pain, a point touched on by Bradford medical director Brent Boyett in a previous webinar, Schaffer included the role of pharmaceutical companies in the epidemic. 

"Pharmaceutical companies began telling physicians that opioid pain relievers were safe, effective and non-addictive," Schaffer said.  

OxyContin appeared on the market in 1995, and Purdue Pharmaceuticals launched a campaign to prescribe it for migraines, sports injuries and back pain. 

In the beginning, doctors mistakenly believed that only patients who misused the medications by snorting or using them intravenously would become addicted, according to Schaffer.

Patients, on the other hand, felt safe because they had received the prescription from their doctor.  

As prescriptions started to be curtailed, those who had become addicted turned to heroin use because it was cheaper and easier to get. 

A recent trend is a pill form of heroin that buyers may not recognize as heroin, resulting in overdose, or be unaware that it is laced with deadlier drugs. 

Fentanyl, which is often laced in heroin, is 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and doses as small as 0.25 mg can be fatal, according to information shared by Schaffer. 

Another trend is the use of Carfentanil, which is used to tranquilize large animals such as elephants and is 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

Since 2012, there has been a 639 percent increase in synthetic opioid overdose deaths.

In 2019, 130 Americans died every day from an opioid overdose, whether it was a prescription or an illegally obtained drug.

Schaffer reviewed a number of efforts to curb the crisis, including the lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, drug take-back programs and a $1.8 million grant being used in Jefferson and Walker counties because of high overdose fatalities. 

The work of the Walker County Health Action Partnership, which includes a virtual map of resources, was praised by Schaffer.

Thursday's session was moderated by Tommy Maddox of Desperation Church's Jasper campus. Maddox is now living in recovery following 20 years in addiction and works in drug addiction counseling and jail ministry.

"The Journey Series," a collaboration of the Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and Walker County Health Action Partnership as well as numerous other state and local partners, will be offered virtually each Thursday through Oct. 8 at 2:30 p.m. and 3:35 p.m.

To register or view past sessions, visit www.walkerrecoverymap.org/journey-series.