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South Carolina recently got bad news on the level of the opioid abuse crisis in the state.

For the third year in a row, the number of opioid-involved overdose deaths has increased in the Palmetto State, according to data collected by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. From 2014 to 2017, the total number of deaths related to opioid overdose increased by 47 percent, from 508 to 748 deaths.

The total number of prescription drug-involved overdose deaths, which include non-opioid drugs, increased by 37 percent, from 572 deaths in 2014 to 782 in 2017. Heroin-involved overdose deaths saw a sharp increase of 153 percent, from 57 to 144 deaths. Overall, fentanyl-involved overdose deaths saw the largest increase of 432 percent, from 68 to 362 deaths from 2014 to 2017. Deaths due to methadone, however, continue to decrease from 79 in 2014 to 45 in 2017, which is consistent with national trends, as methadone is used for the treatment of opioid use disorder.

Toward understanding why the situation has reached the point of a statewide health emergency as declared by Gov. Henry McMaster, T&D Staff Writer Dionne Gleaton profiled the opioid crisis in an eye-opening three-part series in 2017 focusing on the extent of the problem, its direct impact on lives and what can be done.

Gleaton reported on the numbers:

• The U.S. Centers for Disease and Control’s Vital Signs report shows opioid prescriptions continue to be written at a high rate, with the amount of opioids prescribed per person standing three times higher in 2015 than in 1999.

• The report indicates that while the amount of opioids prescribed in the United States peaked in 2010 and then decreased each year through 2015, the volume of the potentially addictive medications prescribed is still about three times higher than in 1999, when the problem with opioid addiction was in its infancy.

• The CDC reported that prescription painkillers were responsible for roughly half of the nation’s 33,000 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2015.

Gleaton reported that focus on stemming the tide of prescriptions for pain-killers is essential.

“I would consider that opioids are overprescribed in general. What has helped in the recent past are the guidelines that have come out from the CDC and the DEA in terms of their recommendations for how to use opioids and having the providers be more aware of their prescribing habits through just that educational process,” said Dr. Monnie Singleton of Singleton Health Center in Orangeburg.

“I think that has helped us to sort of see a slight decrease in the number of prescriptions that are written, but old habits are hard to break. There are lots of physicians who’ve had patients on opioids for long periods of time and it’s hard to get them off of opioids,” Singleton said.

Gleaton reported on what a recovering addict has to say about the nightmare of opioid addiction.

“It’s a rough life. It’s a full-time job being an addict. There’s not a moment you don’t chase a pill. I mean if you don’t got it, you can’t move, you can’t function. You barely can sleep, cold sweats. I mean, it’s horrible. It’s horrible knowing that your life is based around a pill, that you can’t get out the bed, you can’t go to work, you can’t do nothing without that fix.”

Gleaton reported that addiction experts believe the problem has to be approached as a medical one.

“There is not a silver bullet, but I think that the United States government needs to step up to the plate and do more to treating it more kindly and participate in finding ways to treat it more effectively,” Singleton said. “Incarceration doesn’t do a thing. … What they need to do is really embrace the fact that opioid addiction is a medical condition.”

And Gleaton reported that state government is aware that it must play a key role in addressing the problem.

Since the series, the state has formed Opioid Emergency Response Team, which is tasked with utilizing South Carolina’s emergency management infrastructure to address the crisis.

Progress has been made.

While the three major metropolitan areas (Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties) all saw considerable increases from 2016 to 2017 in opioid-involved deaths, Horry County, which has the largest burden of opioid misuse in the state, saw a substantial decrease in opioid-involved overdose deaths (24 percent, from 101 in 2016 to 77 in 2017). Efforts around response and prevention, such as a unified task force and coalition, have been implemented in Horry County, which may have contributed to the decline in the overdose death rate.

But there are miles to go.

“This new data demonstrates the devastating effects that the opioid crisis continues to have on our state,” McMaster said. “While the combined efforts of the OERT’s members and the many other South Carolinians dedicated to combating this public health emergency are having a positive impact, there is still much work to be done.”

Addressing opioid abuse as a crisis will be necessary, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future.

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