Prevention key to dealing with opioid crisis

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MOSES LAKE — There’s really nothing to distinguish oxycodone from heroin except the name.

“Opioids are powerful, and can be deadly,” said Caleb Banta-Green, the interim director of University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

Heroin began life over a century ago as an over-the-counter painkiller, Banta-Green said, that proved to be hugely addictive despite the promises of its maker — German pharmaceutical giant Bayer — that it wasn’t.

Most people who take opioids to reduce pain, even long-term pain, do not become addicted, Banta-Green said, though just about everyone who takes opioids long-term becomes physically dependent on the drugs.

“Physical dependence is not the same as addiction,” he added.

And it’s addiction that’s the problem.

Addressing a group at Grant Integrated Services via teleconference, Banta-Green was one of two speakers Friday at a regional summit of social service, health care and community workers about ways to treat and event prevent the widespread addiction to opium-based painkillers that has swept across the United States in the last decade.

According to Charissa Fotinos, the deputy chief medical officer for the Washington State Health Care Authority, deaths and hospitalizations from opioid overdoses are falling as prescriptions for opioids have fallen. However, deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been rising in the last few years, and that has been broadening the reach of the country’s opioid epidemic.

“Deaths among Native Americans are four times what they are in white communities,” Fotinos said. “Nationally, it’s no longer a disease of white communities. Black and Latinos are seeing rising rates thanks to synthetics.”

For Banta-Green, preventing people from becoming addicted or even tolerant of opioids in the first place is important, and key to that are the expectations people have of medication and how people expect to deal with stress and pain in their lives.

It’s important children learn from an early age that parents are in charge of medication, that medications can be dangerous if they weren’t prescribed for you or if you take too much, and that “they can help but don’t fix” things, Banta-Green said.

When it comes it managing pain, it’s best to start with non-opioid painkillers, and if those don’t work, move on to opioids, Banta-Green said. But only in short, three- to seven-day prescriptions of “the lowest dose possible for the shortest time,” since most people don’t actually use all of the painkillers they are prescribed.

It’s also best to appreciate that sometimes we will all experience pain.

“We all experience emotional and physical pain, so how to do we deal with it”” Banta-Green said. “Your life will have pain.”

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