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Just how bad *is* the opioid epidemic?

This week we wrote about North Carolina’s response to the opioid epidemic in the recently passed state budget.

While the budget did improve funding for the state’s Controlled Substances Reporting System and funneled $10 million in federal grants to treatment services, it was well under what Gov. Roy Cooper called for in his suggested budget and only about half of what was called for in the bi-partisan Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act.

A number of Democrats – including Cooper – are disappointed and say more funding and a more holistic approach is crucial.

The story also talked a little about the way in which different classes of people now dying of drug overdoses – which is to say, more middle and upper middle class white people – has led to more concern.

But if you’re confused about just how bad the problem really is – in North Carolina and beyond – you should read this new story on the issue from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

From the story:

Nationwide, the drug overdose epidemic is now claiming more lives than both homicides and automobile accidents combined, and there were more fatalities from drug overdoses in 2015 than AIDS-related deaths during that epidemic’s peak in the 1990s. Drugs are the No. 1 killer of people under 50, and they are shortening the average American life expectancy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent count of drug overdose deaths was more than 52,000 in 2015, with at least 33,000 due to heroin, fentanyl, prescription painkillers and other opioids.

An early calculation of 2016 drug deaths by The New York Times estimates that overdose deaths were as high as 65,000 last year. That would be the largest one-year increase in history. Evidence from drug seizures and medical examiners’ reports suggests the death toll will be even higher this year.

“It turns out that Narcan [an opioid overdose antidote] is not the miracle drug everyone thought it was,” Fowler said. “It works great for an overdose of heroin, but now with fentanyl you need three doses. With carfentanil you need six.”

The overdose victims are revived with Narcan, which blocks the effect of opioids. But the problem is that many refuse further medical attention, walk away, and later die. That’s because after about an hour the rescue drug stops working, but the potent opioids continue to suppress breathing, sometimes for as long as eight hours.

People who overdose on heroin, fentanyl and other synthetic opioids need to be taken to a hospital, and put on a respirator, Fowler said. Some may need multiple doses of Narcan. But in many cases, that’s not happening. An increasing number of the fatal overdose victims his staff investigates were rescued earlier the same day, he said.

Read the whole story, which goes into startling detail about the number of bodies so overwhelming medical examiners that there aren’t enough staff to handle the autopsies and it’s getting difficult to hire more.

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