Nuestra Comunidad: Opioid epidemic kills more Latinos every year

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited Georgia recently to educate the community about the opioid epidemic. Johanes Roselló/MundoHispanico

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited Georgia recently to educate the community about the opioid epidemic. Johanes Roselló/MundoHispanico

Five years ago, Emmanuel Reyes took two pills which were in two bottles on his night stand, to relieve an intense pain that was bothering him. Shortly after, he began vomiting, stopped breathing and lost consciousness. The next thing Reyes knew, he was in the emergency room, being attended to by a group of doctors.

Those pills almost cost the 30-year old his life. Due to his condition of sickle cell anemia, an illness which causes chronic pain and fatigue, Reyes takes opioid medications such as methadone and morphine. The Dominican native says that he accidentally mixed two opioid medications in what was nearly a fatal overdose.

Reyes would prefer not to have to depend on these highly addictive medications. He sees an epidemic of people dying from the consumption of opioids in the U.S., most of them healthy individuals who tried a pill and then could not stop. Now, their deaths are part of an alarming statistic that grows every day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 115 people die by opioid overdose every day in the U.S.

Between 2000 and 2016, more than 600,000 people died of drug overdose in this country, most of them by some form of an opioid drug.

What is now considered to be an epidemic was initially classified as a problem among whites in rural areas, but does not discriminate by race or area.

“We can’t just talk about whites or Hispanics; we’re talking about everyone in general. It’s an epidemic in which we’re seeing children as young as 10, 12 years old, beginning to take drugs that before were for adults, which are opioids, which is heroin,” explained Diana Plazas, Gen-Rx Project Director for CETPA, a nonprofit counseling agency specializing in mental health and substance abuse.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, opioid-related deaths among Latinos rose 35 percent between 2015 and 2016, and with synthetic opioids, numbers increased 183 percent. In 2016 alone, 3,440 Hispanics suffered an opioid overdose, according to statistics from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

In a recent visit to Georgia, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams had a message for the Latino community specifically:

“There are two things I wish to say to the Latino community. Number one, don’t fool yourselves; this isn’t just a white people problem, it’s not just a rural problem, this is a problem in all communities. Overdoses are increasing, and I want the Latino community to know that they and their loved ones could become victims of the opioid epidemic like anybody else. Number two, use these tragedies to have a deeper discussion about health in your communities, to talk about housing, about employment,” said Adams in an interview with MundoHispánico.

In an interview with MundoHispánico in 2016, Pierluigi Mancini, founder and former director of CETPA, explained that through a medical directive put into practice in the 1990s, which required medical staff in emergency rooms to ask patients their pain level, the number of narcotics prescriptions, such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone skyrocketed.

“At the end of the 90s we began seeing an increase in medical clinics with the sole objective of selling narcotic prescriptions,” said Mancini.

In 2010, however, after the number of opioid addicts and overdose deaths shot up, the government decided to shut down clinics where people could easily obtain narcotics.

“In those 25 years, we created a group of people addicted to opium and to narcotic pain medications, and, since they no longer had a clinic to go and get their prescription, and that drug was no longer as available in the streets like before, we began seeing an increase in the consumption of heroin, with lower prices,” added Mancini.

The face of the opioid crisis is getting increasingly younger. The majority of users are between 18 and 25 years old, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

However, those who work with youth say they are seeing more addicts who are younger than 18.

Plazas says that Hispanic teenagers do not have to go far to find these pills.

“Hispanics tend to hold on to medications in case we ever need them again,” explained Plazas, who emphasized the importance of properly disposing of these drugs, in designated locations.

“Many of these places are in police departments. Some people are nervous to go to police stations, but don’t worry, we’re just trying to get people to get rid of drugs they no longer need at home, and obviously if you don’t want to go to the police station, I know that some pharmacies such as Walgreens or CVS also have drop boxes,” said Plazas.

Reyes, for his part, must take these medications daily due to his health problems, but he asks himself why young people would risk their lives using narcotic drugs without a medical necessity to do so. He has a strong message for those who think a pill won’t do them any harm.

“You can say, ‘that’s not going to happen to me, I just have a little bag with two or three pills. It’s to keep me alert. I have exams.’ It will grab hold of you like a pitbull. It’s going to destroy your mind. It’s going to destroy your body. It’s going to destroy everything. It’s very ignorant for a person to say, ‘that won’t be me. I’m not going to let that happen, because I’m in control.’ Sooner or later, and very easily, it’s going to control you,” assured Reyes.

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