Growing up and living in a rural area doesn’t necessarily mean we are sheltered from bad things. In America, 15 out of 100 people live in a rural area. It’s nice to not fight the traffic of an urban area, neighbors also look out for one another and children can, for the most part, still play outside with their friends. However, when it comes to drug abuse and the opioid epidemic, rural areas are in crisis.

The rate of drug overdose deaths in rural areas has surpassed the death rate in urban areas and is a huge public health concern. Drug overdoses in the United States are now the leading cause of death — like AIDS or motor vehicle crashes were when they were at their peak.

The opioid epidemic actually starting in 1996 when Oxycontin hit the market and doctors began handing the drug out like candy. In its first year, Oxycontin accounted for $45 million in sales. By 2000, that number would balloon to $1.1 billion and ten years later the profits would inflate to $3.1 billion. All the while the manufacturer of the drug, Purdue Pharma sold and branded the product to doctors and pharmacies as abuse-resistant. However, recreational drug users and addicts would crush, sniff and inject the pill for a powerful high that lasted for more than eight hours, and the effects were found to be as great as heroin.

In 2007, a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma was filed by the United States and top executives pleaded guilty to charges that they mislead the medical industry about the addictive properties of Oxycodone. The company paid $600 million in fines and was among the largest settlements in U.S. history for a pharmaceutical company.

Next up were the designer drugs such as Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycodone and Fentanyl. Again all of these drugs are equally addictive, but big money lines the pockets of many. In 2008 dentist were dishing out Vicodin after doing a simple routine filling for patients. According to the webmd.com it only takes six days for an individual to become physically addicted to any of these drugs. Again during this time, people were lining up at pharmacy counters to get their painkilling drug, and why not, a doctor had prescribed it.

So why are rural areas being hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people who live in rural areas of the United States tend to be older, poorer and sicker than those living in urban areas. Differences in socio-economic factors, health behaviors and access to health care services contribute to these differences. From 1999-2015, the opioid death rates in rural areas quadrupled among those 18-25 years old and tripled for females.

Is there an answer or solution to the opioid epidemic?

Not really. More than one out of three Americans use a painkiller on a daily basis. Nearly 92 million U.S. adults took a legitimately prescribed opioid in 2015 according to the results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. However, recently new national standards have been set by the CDC to limit access to the addictive painkillers — which act on similar brain systems affected by heroin and morphine, making them particularly habit-forming — advising doctors to avoid prescribing them for long-lasting or chronic pain and to limit supplies for short-term use to three days, and to avoid writing scripts for longer than seven days.

The landscape of drug overdoses in America is ever changing and affects everyone, no matter where you live. As the epidemic continues to evolve and change, we must understand the circumstances that contribute to opioid deaths, become educated to opioid abuse and remain vigilant to prevent overdoses in our communities. The more we understand about this drug epidemic, the better prepared we all will be to stop it in its tracks and save lives.

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