By: Monica Zack, MPH Candidate at Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health
In 1946, when addressing the public about the polio epidemic President Truman said “If we fail to recognize the inherent danger of this disease, we overlook a threat to the people of the United States”. 3,145 people died of polio at the peak of that epidemic in 1952. Today, 78 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. That is more than 28,000 people a year. The impact of the opioid epidemic has far surpassed that of polio in the United States, yet despite this reality, we are not seeing the same kind of urgent public response that other epidemics have elicited. Proof of this lies in the fact that access to treatment for people with substance use disorders is still astonishingly low, with an estimated 89% if individuals with substance use disorders going without necessary treatment.
The reasons for this disparity are complex. Even though the general response to this epidemic is more focused on treatment and prevention it ever was in previous drug epidemics, damage caused by prior responses has proven hard to shake. Addiction remains highly stigmatized and dangerously misunderstood. On one hand, more people today are coming to recognize addiction as a medical, rather than a criminal, issue and support calls for treatment instead of imprisonment. On the other hand, there is still a palpable sense of societal discomfort around these issues. The belief that addiction is a moral failing or result of poor decision still making remains deeply entrenched. Furthermore, drugs such as heroin are often seen as scary, as existing in neighborhoods different than our own, and as something we would honestly rather not think about. These kinds of misconceptions about drugs and addiction have created a system that continues to criminalize people who need help, that is unable to provide timely and effective treatment to those who need it, and that has completely failed to learn from its mistakes and prevent this epidemic from occurring in the first place. As a result, massive quantities of dangerous and addictive opioids have become perfectly legal household items, more people are using heroin than ever before, and people are dying in horrifying numbers.
The good news is that there are people and organizations out there working to create more opportunities for treatment, to educate the public, and to create opportunities for success for people in recovery. It is our responsibility as citizens to let go of any apathy we may have towards supporting these causes. We are all affected. If we fail to recognize the inherent danger of the opioid epidemic, then we overlook a great threat to our friends, our family members and to society as a whole. We can get involved by learning as much as we can about the issues, by supporting advocacy movements in our communities and by voting for leaders who are going to invest in the treatment and prevention of addiction. There is no time for indifference.
Monica Zack is a MPH student studying at Drexel University's Dornsife School of Public Health. She has an Bachelors Degree in Behavioral Health Counseling also from Drexel, where she learned primarily about various treatment approaches for people experiencing serious mental illness and addiction. Monica became very interested in the social stigma faced by people living with these conditions, and is now concentrating in Health Management and Policy in order to pursue her career goals of tacking these issues from a systems level approach and creating policies that improve access to care for these individuals.