There is a Black face to the Opioid Crisis

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U.S. Opioid Prescriptions: Still High Despite Recent Declines

By Patrick Forrest, Chicago Crusader

Overdose deaths involving opioids in Chicago rose from 426 deaths in 2015 to 741 deaths in 2016, an increase of 74 percent. Having already touched 95 percent of Chicago’s neighborhoods, the problem is only on the rise according to the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The hardest hit of Chicago’s neighborhoods was Austin which suffered 50 overdose related deaths nearly double the second most affected, North Lawndale. As a community African Americans account for 45 percent of all opioid related overdose deaths in the city and 64 percent of all emergency response calls related to opioids, the highest of any racial group in the city.

According to a report released by Chicago Urban League’s Research and Policy Center, the African American death rate involving fentanyl, heroin and other opioids was 56 percent higher than the white death rate.

“The media focus on the ‘new face’ of addiction has ignored the fact that Black communities are deeply and disproportionately suffering from the opioid crisis in the Midwest and across the country,” said Kane-Willis. “What we don’t need are more arrests and incarceration, but expanded resources to ensure that everyone has equitable access to lifesaving interventions like treatment and harm reduction services.”

While overdose deaths increased across all opioid types, the opioid contributing the largest increase was fentanyl. The number of opioid-related overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased from 71 deaths in 2015 to 420 deaths in 2016, an increase of nearly 600 percent. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.

“Addiction impacts every one of us, and it is our shared responsibility to provide the resources, information and evidence-based treatment necessary to help overcome opioids,” said CDPH Commissioner Julie Morita in a press release. “By investing in expanded medication assisted treatment, community health workers and education, we are better equipped to face these ongoing challenges.”

The Urban League’s report also highlights that African Americans are disproportionately arrested for drugs, at nearly three times the rate of whites, while approaches to the opioid epidemic have focused more on treatment.

“African Americans need to be part of the solution, and we need our community’s voices heard in putting in place public health solutions if we want to end this crisis,” said Stephanie Schmitz Bech- teler, Vice President and Executive Director of the Research and Policy Center.

A letter sent last month from local officials to the American Dental Association and other medical groups by city and county officials called for restrictions on opioid prescriptions in the fight against the opioid crisis, deemed last month by President Donald Trump as a national public health emergency.

“It is time for you and your members to take bold action to stop the rampant over-prescribing and abuse of pharmaceutical opioids,” states the Oct. 27 letter sent by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and DuPage County Chairman Dan Cronin to the American Dental Association, the American Medical Association and American Pharmacists Association.

Officials in the letter also called on the groups to adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. In addition to adopting policies limiting opioid prescriptions for acute pain, the letter requested the medical groups make the CDC’s guidelines “a top priority across all sections of the associations, from policy makers to academic physicians to medical students,” a city press release states.

“Overdose deaths from heroin and other opioids are skyrocketing across the country, but Chicago is answering the challenge by investing in our communities and working together to find new solutions,” Emanuel said in a statement. “Chicago is investing in treatment and recovery services because we know people can overcome addiction with the proper supports.”

Though data from the recent analysis of the Urban League shows that Chicago has the lowest treatment capacity for treatment in the Midwest and is third lowest among cities nationally only beating  Dallas and San Antonio.

“Politics and the far-reaching criminalization of drug use have devastated African American communities in Chicago and across the country for decades,” said President and CEO Shari Runner. “Now that addressing the opioid epidemic as a public health issue has become a national priority, we must ensure that the approach applies equally to African Americans as to other communities.”

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