Fighting the Global Opioid Crisis

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BARRINGTON, Rhode Island — Among the abundance of global health issues, drug addiction often receives less attention than issues such as disease and hunger. However, while the ramifications of widespread drug abuse may not be as immediately apparent as these other crises, the issue still needs comparable recognition. Drug addiction affects not only physical health but also mental stability, employment and family lives. In some cases, it can entirely derail lives. The abuse of opioids is one particularly alarming health issue. Growing especially quickly within the U.S., the global opioid crisis is worsening everywhere.

Poverty and Public Health

An important element of fighting global poverty is improving global health in general. As Health Poverty Action explains, poverty is both a cause and an effect of poor health. Poverty often prevents the impoverished from accessing adequate medical treatment, basic healthcare, education and information on the hazards of illicit drug use.

Poor health can also put these individuals in an economic deadlock, leaving them unable to provide for themselves or their families. On a larger scale, poor health can lead to economic depression on local and even national levels. Countries hit hardest by malaria see around a 1.3% reduction in economic growth while tuberculosis costs nearly 7% of a heavily affected country’s GDP. This can translate to billions of dollars in losses for developing countries.

Opioid Abuse: A Global Issue

One of the most significant global health issues affecting both the developed and the developing world is the global opioid crisis. While many think the opioid crisis is primarily an issue that wealthier countries face, studies are showing that the number of opioid addictions worldwide has been steadily increasing over the past decade. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study, the global rate of drug use has increased by nearly a third over the past 10 years. The organization partially attributes this to an increased rate of opioid use in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America.

A Serious Health Crisis

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers opioid addictions a serious public health concern. WHO states that fewer than 30% of drug-related deaths are the result of non-opioid drugs. In 2017 alone, there were nearly 115,000 deaths due to opioid overdose. Even beyond the risk of overdose, illicit opioid use increases the chance that an individual will contract a blood-borne infection, be involved in a road traffic accident or attempt suicide.

The combination of poverty and drug abuse tends to foster a downward cycle where neither poverty nor addiction can be escaped. According to the St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, poverty often leads to heightened feelings of stress and depression as well as difficulties accessing social support and healthcare. In turn, addiction and substance abuse disorders can interfere with one’s job performance. This can lead to employment termination, which may make it more difficult for the individual to find a new job. The cost of the drugs themselves can also contribute to poverty, especially as the addiction progresses and leads to the need to take more of the drug to satisfy the craving.

Widespread opioid abuse can also cause social instability in developing regions. The transport of opioids has even been connected with efforts by terrorist groups to destabilize regions in India and Africa over the past few years. In 2017, officials from the UNODC worked with authorities in India to uncover and intercept the transport of 600,000 Tramadol tablets worth nearly $75 million en route to the terrorist group Boko Haram. In that same year, the U.N. confiscated another three million Tramadol tablets headed to Niger. This time, they were concealed in boxes marked with the U.N.’s own logos. The UNODC considered Tramadol to have played a key role in the destabilization of the region.

Teen Challenge, Netherlands

For more insight into the global opioid crisis, The Borgen Project spoke to Stephan Barendse. Stephan is the CEO of a faith-based drug and alcohol abuse recovery program known as Teen Challenge, Netherlands. According to Stephan, the use of opioids has generally decreased in the Netherlands over the past few years. However, amphetamines and similar drugs are taking their place. He said that the majority of drug abuse cases that they deal with at Teen Challenge involve adolescents between 12 and 18 years old. Since adolescents are generally more vulnerable to peer pressure than adults, he says that it is no surprise that teens comprise the largest group of drug abuse cases globally.

While Stephan did explain that addiction to opioids and other drugs is an issue across the socio-economic board, he added that educational, economic and geographical factors all play a significant role in the global opioid crisis. Coming from a low-income home or an economically depressed area or having limited access to education are all factors that might increase the risk of drug addiction. However, the point that Stephan wanted to emphasize the most is that there is hope for those struggling with drug abuse problems.

Working Toward a Solution

One solution proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) in 2019 was an effort to reintegrate women impacted by the opioid abuse crisis into the workforce. To do this, the USDL offered $2.5 million in grants to organizations that would aid these women through the Re-Employment, Support and Training for the Opioid-Related Epidemic (RESTORE) program. This initiative addressed two significant aspects of opioid abuse: that it disproportionately affects women and that it is nearly impossible for those affected to find employment. A global initiative similar to the USDL’s could help reduce opioid addiction worldwide.

The education of both patients and medical practitioners is also an important part of reducing opioid use. Evidence suggests that providing doctors with more accurate data about the impact of opioid use leads to more caution when prescribing opioids. A 2018 U.S. study revealed that doctors who learned more about overdose deaths among their patients were 10% less likely to prescribe morphine to subsequent patients than those who were unaware.

These are just a few examples of possible solutions for reducing opioid abuse. They are certainly not exhaustive; however, they suggest that targeted, evidence-based strategies may play a key role in fighting the global opioid abuse crisis going forward.

Marshall Kirk
Photo: Flickr

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