HOLYOKE – Dr. Jeanette Wolfe, an emergency room doctor for Baystate Medical Center, didn’t pull any punches. Heroin addicts, she noted, used to be people “on the fringes of society.” Today, though, as public health officials face an epidemic of heroin addiction, many people in the mainstream are being affected.
The gateway drugs fueling this wave of addiction are the prescription painkillers people are getting from their physicians, she said.
How big is the problem? Wolfe said more than 2.5 times more people suffer death through overdoses (OD) than from car accidents.
Wolfe was one of the speakers at the 26th annual Victims’ Right Conference sponsored by Baystate Continuing Interprofessional Education and the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office.
The daylong event was conducted on April 16.
According to the state’s Department of Public Health, 668 Massachusetts residents died in 2012 from unintentional opioid OD – a 90 percent increase from 2000. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that illicit drug use accounts for $181 billion in health care, productivity loss, crime, incarceration, and drug enforcement.
The speakers at the conference included Joanne Peterson, founder and president of Learn2Cope addiction support group (www.learn2cope.org), as well as Wayne Kowal of the Connecticut State Police Statewide Narcotics Task Force.
“How we got into this problem is really complex and how we get out of it is really complex,” Wolfe said.
She said doctors have been under pressure to help their patients cope better with pain. At first the emphasis was a better end of life and then came more attention to acute and chronic pain. They were thought to be “undertreating” pain.
Pharmaceutical companies spent millions of dollars to market drugs and to question whether or not physicians were doing the best job in treating pain, she added.
“Initially the intent was quite good,” Wolfe said.
The problem is the opioid painkillers were prescribed at levels that led to addiction, she said.
“They were more potent than we ever realized,” she said.
Wolfe said complicating the issue is that treating pain is “very subjective.”
Heroin comes into the situation as the cheaper alternative to prescription opioids sold on the street. Wolfe explained a 20-milligram pain pill would cost $20 from a dealer, while that amount can buy four to five bags of heroin. She added that people initially don’t believe heroin is as addictive since they snort it rather than inject it.
“We see many, many ODs in the emergency room,” she said.
She offered the following advice: Question your doctor if he or she is offering to prescribe opioid painkillers and be prepared to properly dispose of the ones a patient doesn’t use.
Wolfe also emphasized the importance of the availability of Narcan, the drug that can be used to treat an OD, to families coping with addiction.
Peterson said she started the family support group when her son became an addict in 2004. Although some of the families have been affected by alcohol and cocaine addiction, she said the majority of families are dealing with a member addicted with opioids.
There are close to 7,000 members in the organization drawing support and education from it, she said. There is no cost to join.
“It’s a place for families to go,” she said.
he organization meets locally at 7 p.m. on Thursdays at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, 1233 Main St. (Route 5), in the first floor auditorium.