Pill Problem: Groups work to prevent opioid addiction

Published 11:21 am Thursday, January 18, 2018

Last of a series

MURFREESBORO – Last week a multitude of professionals from all over northeastern North Carolina gathered at Murfreesboro Baptist Church to learn more about the opioid addiction crisis sweeping America. The conference focused on educating people on the problem as well as looking to developing solutions.

One of the most important steps in combatting the crisis is increasing efforts towards prevention.

“If you’re in rural northeastern North Carolina, you know what works best: partnerships. We have very few resources, so we have to come together,” said Ashley Stoop, a member of the Albemarle Overdose Prevention Coalition, as she addressed the audience.

Stoop was joined by several other speakers who presented different perspectives to tackle the opioid problem head on before it even begins.

Dr. Blake Fagan, a family doctor from Asheville, spoke during his session about the importance of prevention from a medical point of view. He explained how many doctors, including himself at one time, tend to overprescribe opioids to treat pain, particularly for chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, migraines, and back pain.

Fagan noted recent guideline changes and legislation as some of the first steps to curtailing excessive prescriptions.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), for example, revised their opioid prescription guidelines to urge doctors to first try alternative relief methods for chronic pain. They also suggest doctors thoroughly discuss the risks of opioid use with patients.

Effective in North Carolina on January 1 this year, the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act (STOP Act) sets limits on opioid prescriptions for acute pain, post-operation recovery, and chronic pain. Acute pain prescriptions are limited initially to a less than five-day supply, while post-surgery prescriptions are limited to seven days. For chronic pain, the doctor must check first if the patient is listed in the NC Controlled Substance Reporting System.

North Carolina is the 17th state to enact this kind of legislature, Fagan noted.

“The other states, they didn’t burn down. They’re still standing,” the doctor added in response to resistance some medical professionals have had to the change.

For treating chronic pain, Dr. Fagan described alternative methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, treatment of mood disorders like depression, physical therapy, yoga, and other forms of exercise.

For acute pain, he cited a study which showed a combination of one Tylenol and one ibuprofen together was just as effective and less addictive than an opioid.

Dr. Fagan also emphasized another important prevention method is simply to properly lock up medications and then properly dispose of unused pills afterwards. Many of the conference’s other speakers agreed.

“One of the biggest predictors of why a kid will use a substance is access and availability,” said Amber Griffiths from Dare County’s Coalition Against Substance Abuse (Dare CASA). “Seventy percent of kids are getting prescription meds from their friends or their family members. So don’t be the accidental dealer.”

Griffiths suggested both community-wide and individual ways to reduce that access to prescription opioid pills, ranging from securing medications within the home to disposing of unused prescriptions at local drop boxes or during “Take Back” events.

“And never share,” Griffiths exclaimed, stressing how important it is to not give pills to other people, even family members. “That’s a felony.”

Drop boxes for old, unused prescriptions in the Roanoke-Chowan area are at the following locations: Mizelle’s Pharmacy in Ahoskie, the Northampton County Sheriff’s Office in Jackson, Colonial Pharmacy in Murfreesboro, and the Bertie County Sheriff’s Office in Windsor.

It’s important to mark out any personal information of the bottle label before turning it in.

Griffith’s work with Dare CASA focuses on other community prevention methods as well, with environmental prevention strategies being at the forefront of that.

“It’s trying to create a healthier environment,” she explained. “We need to change the environment that our kids are growing up in.”

Griffiths continued to list other community prevention strategies such as traditional education in schools, advocacy work to change policies, media awareness campaigns, and partnerships with medical professionals and law enforcement officers.

Stoop and the Albemarle Overdose Prevention Coalition used funding from Project Lazarus to implement similar community initiatives in several northeastern NC counties, including Gates and Bertie. They started educational programs like “Keeping it REAL (Refuse, Explain, Avoid, Leave)” and Drugs Uncovered. They also purchased drop boxes and incinerators for local sheriff’s offices to dispose of pills.

“When you have funding, you’ve got to spend it, and that clock is ticking,” Stoop continued.

She offered advice to the conference attendees on how to effectively use funding for combating the opioid crisis.

“Put it on paper, put a plan in place, realize you are not going to accomplish everything that you set out to do initially,” she said, but added that it’s important to keep moving forward.

All of the speakers agreed that the earlier parents talked to kids about substance abuse, the better it was in the long run. Fagan shared a statistic which indicated children were 50 percent less likely to use drugs when they were taught about the dangers of them at home.

“You have to have that conversation. You have to build that trust,” Stoop said later, explaining that she started with her son as young as three years old.

Griffiths echoed the importance of what the others had said.

“I’m not going to be that mom that says not my kid,” she explained. “I’ve met too many families who have lost their kids, who have lost their loved ones, because they said ‘not my kid.’ This (drug) does not discriminate.”

The Hertford-Northampton County Opioid Crisis Coalition is a local initiative formed by community partnerships to make a difference in the area.

Sue Lassiter, the administrator for Vidant Health’s Regional Behavioral Health Services, concluded the conference with a brief explanation of the new coalition.

The group’s top priorities are to coordinate resources, increase community awareness, and secure funding. They’ve worked most recently to distribute naloxone kits to local law enforcement officers and health care workers.

Their mission statement reads: “We envision a collaborative team focused on prevention efforts and educating communities regarding opioid use, providing support to families, improving quality of life, and the absence of opioid related deaths in our communities.”

The coalition meets monthly at Chowan University.

“Go back with the spirit of trying to make a difference,” Lassiter said in the final words of the conference. “It starts with saving one life.”