Arizona ranks 12th in the nation for abuse of prescription drugs

By Daniel Adamovich, PhD

As is every county in Arizona, Navajo County is dealing with an opioid epidemic. A report by the Arizona Department of Health Services notes that 3,101 possible opioid overdoses were reported from June 15 to Sept. 28 in the state, of which 13 percent were fatal. Of that total, 59 percent were male and 41 percent were female. In addition, 247 babies were born with possible drug-related withdrawal symptoms. These statistics rank Arizona 12th highest in the nation for individuals over 12 misusing and abusing prescription drugs.

An opioid is a class of drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain, which is their intended positive use, but they may become addictive, which is their unintended negative use.

“Opioids have been on the radar a few years now. There wasn’t a lot of traction at the state and federal level, because they hadn’t bought into it as being a problem until the past year and a half. Here in Arizona, we declared a state of emergency back in May or June that allowed us to get some more data sharing agreements from pharmacies, from medical examiner offices, hospitals and behavioral health offices to find out how much of the opioid drugs were being prescribed, and how many overdoses were actually being seen and treated,” explained Jeff Lee, director of the Navajo County Public Health District.

Lee went on to say, “While all this has been going on we have a program, AZ Overdose Prevention Program, an education program. We go out to health fairs, we go out to community fairs, schools and religious groups, and we present (information) about opioids, the signs of overdose and the use of Naloxone.”

Naloxone, brand name Narcan, is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose situations. “The actual users do not want Naloxone because it eliminates their high very very quickly,” said Lee.

He explained that the health district does not provide Naloxone, but all county first responders and the Sheriff’s Office do, and hospitals and pharmacies are giving it out free. “There are quite a number of community groups that do and all hospitals have it on hand. We link families having a member with an addiction problem with the groups that have Naloxone on hand and these families can pick it up,” he noted.

“People don’t want to be seen walking around with Naloxone, because it’s known what it’s for. They take it home and if they have a family member that might be overdosing, they are able to inject the individual and it’s a lifesaving process.”

Adam Wolfe, director of Navajo County Communications, said, “What’s important to know with Naloxone or Narcan is that it’s a temporary fix. If you are having an overdose you’ll prevent it for about 30 minutes, and you’ll need to get them to a hospital immediately.” When Naloxone is administered intravenously it acts within one minute. Naloxone can also be administered via intramuscular injection, subcutaneous injection or nasal spray.

Lee added, “It’s a temporary fix, but if it’s a life and death situation it’s going to save their lives until first responders arrive and get them to a medical facility where something can be done about it.”

Lee noted that funding for opioid programs is presently lacking. “Now that attention is at the federal level, we do see potential funding in the future that will help us with more education, with more of the outreach and more of the data interpretation so we get a clearer picture of sources of problems and particular pockets in communities,” he said.

“We don’t want it to get to the point where you have to inject someone with the Naloxone to save his or her life. We’d rather have it to where they don’t have to get to that point of overdose. If it’s a family member or a friend, speak to them if they need help, reach out and get help. Take a hands on approach,” said Wolfe.

For more information visit www.navajocountyaz.gov, Public Health Services, then Programs and Services for the county’s prescription drug overdose prevention page.