As Portage County, the state and many other communities nationwide find themselves in the grips of a heroin and prescription opioid epidemic, health educators in the county are working with other community organizations to battle misconceptions about addiction.
"Addiction truly is a disease," Townhall II clinical services director Rob Young told a crowd of 40 gathered Sept. 24 at the Hiram Christian Church. "It is a brain disease."
He and other health professionals were on hand at one of three planned Start Talking! Portage events.
The initiative is a partnership of the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County and Portage County Health District, in cooperation with multiple public organizations and municipalities.
The American Medical Association also says addiction is a disease, like diabetes or heart disease.
In Portage County, it is likely that 8 percent to 10 percent -- or about 14,000 people -- have the disease of addiction, Young said.
In an addict, "the brain has decided that substance is so important, it fools the judgment center and the brain justifies the use," he said.
Fortunately, Young said, "we have a pretty good idea how to treat it."
Karyn Hall, director of community relations for the MHRB, said she wants to help dispense with the opinion that addiction is a choice.
Most cases of addiction develop before age 21, and children who have suffered trauma such as child abuse are two to four times more likely to develop it, she said.
The current focus of efforts in Portage County is on opioid use, abuse and dependence. Opioids include illegal drugs such as heroin, but also prescription painkillers such as codeine, fentanyl, methadone, morphine and oxycodone.
An estimated 80 percent of heroin addicts start off taking one or more of these drugs, develop a tolerance over as little as six weeks but remain unable to combat the emotional and physical pain they feel, Hall said.
That's when they turn to heroin, which is "cheap and easy to get," and has a high addiction and relapse rate, Mantua police Sgt. Joe Urso said.
More Ohioans now die from accidental drug overdoses than car crashes, which has been the pattern since 2007, Hall said.
In Portage County, the number of fatal accidental drug overdoses went from five in 2011 to 30 in 2015, according to the Portage County coroner's office.
Already this year 31 people have died from a fatal accidental drug overdose, she said.
SOME MORE FACTS
An estimated 40 million Americans over age 12 battle addiction -- more than the number who have heart disease or cancer, she said.
Another 70 percent to 80 percent of all prison inmates in the United States have a history of addiction, she said. Jails and prisons, including the Portage County Jail, have become the only detoxification and withdrawal facilities available in many communities.
The MHRB funds numerous addiction and mental health programs in schools and in the public sector, and assists county courts in providing placement for criminal offenders with addiction problems.
Young and Hall said Portage County does not have a detox facility to handle its population of those with addiction. For now, the MHRB pays for those with addiction to go to detox programs in Akron or Canton.
The health department has for a year now been sponsoring Project DAWN -- Deaths Avoided With Naloxone -- which provides kits that can save the life of a person overdosing on opioids by blocking receptors in the brain, said Becky Lehman of the Portage County Health District.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is "completely safe" and can stop both accidental overdoses from illegal opioids like heroin and those from the accidental ingestion of prescription opioid narcotics.
The use of Narcan is "not enabling," Lehman said. "What we're doing is providing an opportunity for that person to seek and obtain help for their addiction ... we're hoping what we're doing is giving people a chance at life."
While they can be effective, treating pain in ways other than medically prescribing potentially addictive opioid painkillers is another step the medical community needs to take to combat addiction, Young said.
Painkillers "distance you from emotional pain" just as they do from physical pain, he said.
Acupuncture, biofeedback, guided imagery and virtual reality treatments are proved to work in reducing pain, Young said.
Medically assisted treatments such as the opioid agonist suboxone and the opioid antagonist Vivitrol or naltrexone "in conjunction with behavioral treatment has shown to be effective," he said.
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