The hard, cold numbers are astonishing.
More than 90 Americans die on a daily basis from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, deaths from such prescription opioids as oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone have more than quadrupled.
Meanwhile, there were 550 drug and alcohol overdose-related deaths – including 372 fetanyl-related deaths — in Maryland from January to March of this year, according to the state’s Department of Health.
On Tuesday, Nov. 21, from 6:30-8:30 p.m., the community forum “Confronting the Opioid Epidemic” will be held at the Edward A. Myerberg Center, 3101 Fallstaff Road in Northwest Baltimore. The free event is a joint effort by Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home, Jewish Community Services, the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Myerberg Center.
Keynote speaker at the gathering will be Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, associate dean of public health practice and training at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Sharfstein is former secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and former health commissioner of Baltimore City.
Participating in a panel discussion will be Dr. Yngvild Olsen, medical director of the Institutes of Behavior Resources in Baltimore; James M. Ryan, young adult program director at the Ashley Addiction Treatment: Maryland Addiction Rehab Center in Havre de Grace; Steve Seidel, a local pharmacist and father whose son died from an overdose; and an individual who is in recovery.
The forum will include a question-and-answer period, as well as representatives from the Baltimore City Health Department who will provide overdose response training, including how to obtain and administer Narcan, a prescription medicine that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Jmore recently spoke with Dr. Sharfstein about the objectives of the event.
Jmore: What fuels the opioid epidemic?
Dr. Sharfstein: The opioid epidemic reflects both the high rates of addiction to opioid medications — such as medications used to treat pain — and to illicit opioids, such as heroin and now increasingly fentanyl. In 2016, 694 residents of Baltimore died of a drug overdose, the vast majority from an opioid. Opioids are so lethal because one of their chemical actions is to affect the respiratory center of the brain. At high enough doses, the drugs knock out the drive to breathe and lead to death by asphyxiation.
Why should the opioid epidemic concern Baltimore’s Jewish community?
The opioid epidemic is affecting every corner of Baltimore, regardless of race, class and religion. Those who have died include members of the Jewish community.
What should everyone know about this epidemic?
Opioid addiction is a serious, chronic illness that affects the brain. Prevention requires understanding risk factors, avoiding illicit opioids such as heroin, and only using prescribed opioids for pain when needed and under the close supervision of a physician.
Effective treatment for opioid use disorder is available and can be lifesaving. The hotline in Maryland is 1-800-422-0009 and the hotline in Baltimore is 410-433-5175.
How can members of the general population identify someone who is likely to be suffering from opioids?
Individuals with addiction often have trouble functioning at home, in school and at work. Some people start with a simple medication for pain and then escalate to higher and higher doses, accompanied by intense cravings. These signs should trigger concern and lead to prompt evaluation.
How should parents talk with their children about opioids?
There is good information available online at the website of the Partnership for Drug Free Kids [drugfree.org]. All parents should talk to adolescents about risk-taking in general, including the risks of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and opioids.
The most important thing for parents to do is to support their children’s healthy development at all ages. Adverse childhood experiences of all kinds are risk factors for addiction.
How long will it take to end the opioid epidemic?
That goal is a long ways off. However, there are states making progress on reducing the toll of the epidemic through significant investments in addiction treatment. It is also important to shift our mindset on drugs from criminal justice to public health. Many police commissioners recognize that it is not possible to arrest our way out of an addiction crisis. Instead, it’s vital to treat individuals who are suffering with compassion and support.
How can we improve our reaction to the epidemic?
Maryland is taking a number of important steps to address the opioid epidemic, but limitations on resources are complicating the effort. Another major problem is the stigma that exists on the type of treatment with the greatest evidence of effectiveness – treatment that uses the medications methadone or buprenorphine. Some people believe that this treatment, because it relies on medications, is just another form of addiction. That is not true. Treatment with methadone and buprenorphine has been associated with fewer overdoses, less crime, less infectious disease and improved long-term health outcomes.
Who should attend this forum?
Anyone with questions about opioid addiction or the epidemic should attend.
For information about the forum, visit jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200.
Peter Arnold is an Olney, Md.-based freelance writer.
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