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Prescription Opioid And Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week

Dr. Alan Weiner MD

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Alan Weiner, MD

April 8, 2019

September 16, 2016, President Barack Obama declared this week Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week. The statement, posted on the White House website cites the fact that more than three out of five deaths each year in America involve opioids. The president proposes that we pause to reflect this week in recognition of those lost, those still in recovery, and on the importance of raising awareness of this epidemic.

Prescription Opioid Disorder and the Heroin Epidemic

As President Obama highlights in his statement, addiction to prescription opioids and heroin is a disease that touches many, from the smaller communities to the large cities. Obama asserts that we are working to address this issue at the federal and local levels, and that, “The Federal Government is bolstering efforts to expand treatment and opioid abuse prevention activities, and we are working alongside law enforcement to help get more people into treatment instead of jail.” In addition, in a statement posted on the Department of Justice’s website, it claims that efforts this week will also include preventing new victims from succumbing to addiction.

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Heroin Defined

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin is an opioid drug synthesized from morphine and taken for the immediate euphoric effect it produces. Unfortunately, more than 4.2 million Americans alone used heroin in 2011, and this number includes those ages 12 and older. Estimates for those who become dependent on the drug are about 23 percent of users. Abuse of heroin results in a number of serious health effects, including:

  • Spontaneous abortion
  • Infectious diseases (such as Hepatitis C)
  • Fatal Overdose
  • In addition, continual users may experience severe side effects, such as:
  • Collapsed veins
  • Infection of the heart lining and valves
  • Abscesses
  • Constipation
  • Gastrointestinal cramping
  • Liver or kidney disease

However, treatment is available for chronic heroin users. Behavioral therapy—which involves teaching a person to live and function without the drug through a number of different therapies and activities—is very effective once a heroin user is able to get away from the drug. For initial attempts to wean from heroin, medication, acting as a weaker alternative (providing similar, if lesser effects), help users to gradually stop use of heroin. These medications include:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone
  • Naloxone (often used in emergency cases to counteract an overdose)

Prescription Opioid Abuse

To begin, prescription opioid abuse is a worldwide problem, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 2.1 million people suffer from substance abuse related to prescription drugs. Opioid prescription drugs include Oxycontin and Vicodin– drugs prescribed for treatment of pain. These medications elicit a sense of well-being and pleasure because they trigger a part of the brain responsible for a feeling of reward.


The problem with opioid prescription abuse is that it is too easy for users to obtain opioids from friends or family; people who have been prescribed these medications for pain treatment will share these medications with people close to them. Whether intentional or not, this contributes to the overall prescription opioid epidemic, as the effects of the drugs make them a high risk for addiction. Most importantly, this addiction is an issue because opioids have a tendency to produce in users a tolerance. In other words, over time, users will no longer feel the effects of the drug, and in turn, will keep taking larger doses to compensate, eventually leading to an overdose.

But there are methods of treatment available for opioid addiction, the more popular of which is agonist medications designed to wean the user slowly from the opioid. These are classified into three groups, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, and are as follows:

  • Agonists (such as methadone), which activate opioid receptors
  • Partial agonists (such as buprenorphine), which also activate opioid receptors while creating a lesser effect
  • Antagonists (such as Naltrexone), which instead blocks receptors of opioids and interferes with the feeling of reward

Taking Action

In response to Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, Federal agencies have taken a number of actions according to, including:

  • Expanding substance use disorder treatment in the TRICARE system in order to include coverage of intensive outpatient programs and treatment for addiction to opioids by implementing pharmacological treatment.
  • Taking enhanced measures together with the Chinese government in order to fight the supply of fentanyl and its analogues entering the United States.
  • Increasing the patient limit from 100 to 275 for physicians prescribing buprenorphine to treat addiction for opioid use. Increasing this limit improves the access to medication-assisted treatment.
  • Supporting distance learning and telemedicine programs that expand access to healthcare, substance abuse treatment, and fostering opportunities for education in rural communities.

For a full list of events in which the Department of Justice is participating toward these efforts, see the Department of Justice webpage for Heroin and Opioid Awareness Week.

Taking A Stand

With so many affected by the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, it is not surprising that we must have an entire week dedicated to awareness of this problem. It is so important that we as a nation strive to get those we love the help they need to overcome addiction. If you or someone close to you is struggling, the time to seek answers is now. Contact us today at for help in getting your life back, free from addiction.

National Institute of Drug Abuse– America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse
National Institute of Drug Abuse– DrugFacts: Heroin
The White House- Fact Sheet– Obama Administration Announces Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week
The White House– Presidential Proclamation– Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week, 2016

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