Letters to the Editor

Time to get serious about the growing heroin epidemic

The opioid epidemic, which includes prescription opioid painkillers and heroin, has been called by the Centers for Disease Control the greatest public health epidemic of modern times. It is finally emerging into public awareness in this region due to multiple media articles and newscasts and by a public community forum sponsored by the Horry County Police Department about the increasing local heroin influx, which took place this past August at The Market Common.

The rise in heroin addiction here and nationwide often start from addiction to prescription opioid painkillers, which have been aggressively but falsely marketed by the opioid drug industry as safe and effective for chronic nonmalignant pain since the introduction of OxyContin in 1996, initially referred to as “hillbilly heroin.”

As a result, opioid-related prescriptions, sales and deaths have increased every year since, with CDC data showing well over 28,000 deaths occurring nationwide in 2014 alone, with almost 19,000 deaths from prescription opioids. More than 10,000 were from imported illegal heroin, sometimes laced with other deadly synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. For every opioid death, many multiples more are addicted with a soaring volume of emergency room visits and hospitalizations, while less than 20 percent of opioid addicts receive treatment. Additionally, opioid addiction is one of the most difficult diseases in medicine to diagnose and treat. Throughout the nation, it has also devastated millions of family members and other close relations of opioid victims while criminal activities related to opioid addiction have become major social and economic problems impacting all our communities.

The eventual solution to this local and national crisis will require a dedicated multifaceted approach, including public and physician education, primary prevention by practitioners to avoid unnecessary opioid prescribing, and a marked increase in funding for addiction treatment services as recommended by the White House (but yet to be approved by Congress).

These strategies are also a priority for the CDC and the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, which are both involved in educating physicians about the unproven long-term benefits and well-established harms of prescription opioid overprescribing -- well-documented by current medical research and CDC studies.

We are at a point where there must be clear acknowledgement of the problem and maximum cooperation among all parties involved with this tragic epidemic in order for significant progress to be made, and for lives to be saved. This includes the coordinated involvement of the entire medical system and EMS services with law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and the participation of our schools, public service organizations, citizen advocates, our political representatives, parties and candidates, the branches and multiple agencies of all levels of government, and the various components of the media.

The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.