About 2.1 million Americans suffered from opioid use disorder (OUD) in 2016. Countless others suffer from other substance use disorders, such as alcoholism. These disorders are diseases, as defined by the American Medical Association. Disorder diagnoses have increased significantly since the 2016 statistic was released, and many people live with untreated SUDs.

In Lackawanna County, where opioid poisoning deaths have spiked dramatically in the last several years, members of the Lackawanna Recovery Coalition and other organizations are working to get people into recovery and battle the stigma and misconceptions about OUD that often pose an unfortunate barrier to treatment and recovery.

The faces of OUD are everywhere within our community. Every age, gender and socioeconomic group is affected. It is a non-discriminatory disease. It is estimated that 80 percent of people who turn to the streets for illicit opioid drugs like heroin begin with legitimate prescriptions for opioid pain medications. As a patient’s tolerance and the physiological craving for more opioids increase, so does the danger of misusing the prescription or seeking relief by illegitimate means. No longer are heroin or fentanyl the only cause of opioid poisoning deaths in Lackawanna County. Overdoses from prescription opioid medications like Oxycontin are commonplace.

Measures to reduce and monitor the rate at which opioids are prescribed in Pennsylvania are being implemented. For example, the Pennsylvania Medical Association and Pennsylvania Dental Association are requiring physicians and dentists to take continuing education courses about their role in use disorder prevention. The LRC is also sponsoring Continuing Medical Education (CME) courses on best prescribing practices and the legal consequences for overprescribing.

But it’s the highly dangerous and toxic fentanyl that is overwhelming the medical and recovery communities. Fentanyl-laced heroin has made its debut in the last few years, with deadly results. Dealers often mix fentanyl with heroin as an inexpensive method to add potency and quickly increase a user’s dependency.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Use of either is reserved in clinical settings for only the most acute or long-term pain management. Its potency and users’ inability to know how much fentanyl is contained in the heroin they buy has produced devastating results. Fentanyl in heroin and its other pure forms, such as patches, sublingual delivery, and pills, has been responsible for scores of overdose deaths in Lackawanna County in recent years.