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The Issue

Addiction is a complex, chronic disease involving changes in brain function that results in compulsive behaviors despite adverse consequences. Its development and maintenance are influenced by biological, psychological, social and environmental factors, and it is preventable and treatable.

West Virginia’s battle with the fatal drug overdose epidemic is ongoing. While overdose numbers have risen, research and community efforts continue to light the way for residents to fight substance use disorder.

The complications of fighting the drug overdose epidemic during the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of access to treatment and recovery programs, as those suffering from substance use disorder found isolation during quarantine too great of a challenge.

Approximately 1,291 overdose deaths were recorded in West Virginia in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly three times the U.S. national average.

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

Despite the increase in overdose deaths, there is light on the horizon. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, West Virginia experienced two years of decreasing overdose deaths in 2018 and 2019: 909 and 877 deaths, respectively. And preliminary data suggests a decline in 2021.

In 2021, more than 67,000 kits of Naloxone, a medication that can reverse overdose, were distributed throughout West Virginia.

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids are the “main driver of drug overdose deaths” in the United States, accounting for 74.8% of cases or 68,630 deaths. In West Virginia, opioids accounted for 1,770 deaths in 2019 and 2020.

As improved enforcement led to fewer prescription pills being distributed, some users turned to illicitly made fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain reliever 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The amount of pills circulating that contained fentanyl raised in the United States from 290,304 in 2018 to 9,649,551 in 2021, a dramatic increase over three years.

Between 2007 and 2012, drug wholesalers shipped to West Virginia 780 million pills of hydrocodone (the generic name for Vicodin) and oxycodone (the generic name for OxyContin), enough to give each resident 433 pills.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Beyond deaths, the toll incurred in West Virginia families, communities, workforce and economy are devastating. Generations have been affected. Children in our state are overrepresented in adverse childhood experiences, and employers have a difficult time finding employees who can pass a drug screen.

Furthermore, the state has seen a steady increase in infectious diseases linked to injections, and unsustainable stresses to the health system, public health and first responder resources and the economies of hundreds of communities.

Tackling the opioid epidemic in the United States and here in West Virginia will take more than simply addressing the drugs themselves. A culture that supports and sustains recovery, enables frank discussion about these issues and reduces the culture of despair that often drives people to substance use will be critical in turning the corner on this devastating problem.

The good news is that addiction is both treatable and avoidable. Recovery is possible.

We approach the opioid emergency as a complex system problem that requires the coordination of an array of clinical services, primary prevention programs, educational opportunities and population health initiatives.

West Virginia University is uniquely positioned to tackle this issue – bringing together academic and clinical experts, laboratory scientists, patient advocates, policymakers and the private sector to lead the United States out of this crisis.

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