During the period between 1999 and 2018, over 400,000 Americans died as a result of overdoses related to America’s opioid crisis. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the epidemic has reached a level where 130 people die every day as a result of this epidemic.
This is why the Virgin Islands Department of Health (DOH) wants to proactively avoid this public health crisis by working with the CDC to help avert a local crisis. “The DOH wants to advise the VI public of the risks associated with taking opioid and “opioid-like” medications for chronic pain and informing residents on the non-opioid options available before we experience an epidemic similar to what is transpiring nationally,” said Acting Commissioner of Health Justa E. Encarnacion.
The crisis began in the early 1990s when American doctors received assurance from pharmaceutical manufacturers that new prescription medications entering the market were safe and non-addictive. This is perhaps why doctors readily prescribed these medications rather than exploring alternative treatments for relieving chronic pain. Unfortunately, the data collected over the following two decades with respect to these medications demonstrates the assurances were untrue.
The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) data shows deaths in the last two decades have increased to more than four times the 1999 level with more than 68 percent of the 70,000 annual deaths directly involving opioid prescription usage. More recent CDC data indicates that despite the ongoing crisis, the level of prescriptions written for opioids in 2017 was five times higher than what was prescribed in 1999.
“Prescription opioid medications do not need to be the first line of treatment for chronic pain,” said Encarnacion. “Successful pain management can be achieved with other treatment modalities such as exercise, physical therapy, heat or cold therapies. Furthermore, the use of non-addictive pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) are also an option to adequately relieve some types of chronic pain. The Department of Health recommends talking with your physician to see if one of these non-addictive therapies might be best for you.”
Prescription medications involved in the national epidemic include: codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and the illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is known to be 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Other drugs contributing to the crisis include illegal ones such as heroin and cocaine.
Aside from drug addiction challenges, there are other serious medical concerns associated with prolonged opioid usage that include: opioid use disorder, hepatitis, HIV infections, AIDS and neonatal abstinence syndromes.
“Developing linkages to care and informing the public about all of the healthcare resources available are key components needed to combat the opioid crisis,” said the acting commissioner. “In the Virgin Islands we are establishing strong partnerships with other government agencies, faith-based organizations, hospitals, pharmacies and healthcare providers to cultivate those relationships between health resources and patients. We want to create a variety of paths that will lead every patient to the care they need.”
The Health Department also cautions residents that new ‘opioid-like’ products such as Kratom, an herbal substance, are equally dangerous. Kratom, an herbal product from Southeast Asia, is unregulated in the U.S. and may have additional risks beyond side effects and addiction. Because it is not regulated, its purity, potency and product consistency are not guaranteed. Moreover, recent reports indicate various Kratom products have been found to contain bacteria like salmonella and/or heavy metals such as lead and nickel.