Working together to fight the opioid epidemic

Over the past two years, for the first time since the AIDS epidemic in 1993, our country has experienced an overall drop in life expectancy. It’s not because of a resurgence of the Plague or some new super-virus. Instead, it’s due in large part to the sweeping toll of addiction that is a scourge on our communities and our health care system: the epidemic of prescription opioid misuse.

While prevention through limiting prescriptions is a critical component to ending the epidemic, action must be taken to reverse course for the millions of Americans already addicted to opioids. There is no single solution here. Each state and each community are facing different challenges, so the solutions must address those unique needs.

In North Carolina, an average of five people died from drug overdoses per day in 2016, and rural communities have been hit especially hard. In fact, it’s estimated that since 1999, there has been a 440 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in the state. The financial toll of unintentional medication and drug fatalities is estimated to be more than $2 billion, but the devastating impact on North Carolina’s families and communities is beyond any financial cost.

Fortunately, for North Carolinians, the conversation around opioid misuse is changing and there are local champions on the ground doing the hard work. Through its work, the The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition has given first responders in rural communities the tools they need to respond to overdoses and has helped care professionals adopt best practices to prevent them. Since 2008, NCHRC has trained more than 47,400 people across the state on how to recognize, respond and reverse an opioid overdose. Additionally, the coalition has distributed more than 60,500 overdose prevention kits to all 100 counties, resulting in 10,231 successful overdose reversals.

Bernadette Calicchio of Wilmington, North Carolina received one of NCHRC’s overdose prevention kits hoping she would never have to use it. But not long after, a dear friend of hers overdosed right in front of her. Bernadette recognized the signs of an overdose, called 911 and administered the naloxone to her friend. “Waiting for her to come back from the overdose was the longest three minutes of my life,” she says. “But I’m glad I had that kit in my purse and was able to give her another chance at life.”

There must be more success stories like this.

This week, the Aetna Foundation announced a $6 million commitment to fight the opioid epidemic that will be distributed to several states particularly hard hit by this crisis, starting with a $1 million grant to the NCHRC. With this work, our organizations will work together to increase law enforcement knowledge of overdose response, help more health care professionals adopt best practices and increase the ability for rural residents to prevent overdose. Together, we hope to build a road map of best practices that other communities can follow.

We can’t afford to wait for a solution to present itself. It’s going to take everyone working together to fight this problem in order to protect the future of the next generation.

Garth Graham is president of the Aetna Foundation and vice president of Community Health for Aetna. Robert Childs is the executive director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition.

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