South Pittsburgh Reporter - Serving South Pittsburgh Since 1939

By Tom Smith
South Pittsburgh Reporter Editor 

Rudiak calls experts together to learn about heroin epidemic


In mid-April of this year, 10 Pittsburgh residents, including several in South Pittsburgh, overdosed on a single batch of heroin.

In an effort to address the root causes of addiction and learn more about the problem as a public health issue Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak brought government and private health and safety experts together in City Council Chambers for discussion.

“We know that heroin addiction not only affects individuals but it destroys families, and causes crime and hurts our neighborhoods and undermines the idea that we have the most livable city here in Pittsburgh,” began Ms. Rudiak.

She noted in a 2003-2013 study by the Center for Disease Control that the rate of heroin overdoses quadrupled. The rise in abuse was in every demographic, but most notably in women and whites. There was also a rise in the number of people abusing prescription drugs.

Mark Bocian, chief of EMS for the City of Pittsburgh opened the discussion.

“There is a problem in Pittsburgh. It’s not getting smaller, it’s getting bigger,” he began. “Statically we’re on track this year probably to see a third more, if not double, the amount of heroin overdoses that we’d seen last year. And that number is increasing, every year it’s gone up.”

He said with quick response and treatment, they have been able to save a great many of the individuals who overdoses. They can’t point to any particular neighborhoods or demographics for the increases saying it’s increased across all ages and backgrounds.

What people don’t see is how it affects families, he added.

“The problem is not going to go away if we don’t sit here and talk about it and come up with some solutions, particularly the prevention side. We on the quick responders’ side are able to react. I would love to not be able to not go on those calls and that’s where we need to be,” Chief Bocian said.

Darryl Jones chief of the Bureau of Fire for the City of Pittsburgh said the heroin epidemic is a crisis and crisis management isn’t his forte… consequence management for the fire department as first responders is.

“I deal with the consequence of their overdose or abuse. It’s a drain on resources. It’s a drain on family members of the victims. We see it every day and it does suppress the respiratory system,” he said. “Fortunately we can be there in most cases in enough time that we can do what we call rescue breathing and resuscitate this patient and keep them going until paramedics can arrive and administer the Narcam.”

He said typically if there is a death in Pittsburgh from an overdose, the 911 call was made after the victim was already dead.

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, said there has always been a heroin problem in a small segment of the community, but in the last 10 to 20 years the unintentional drug deaths involving opioids has increased dramatically.

One reason is an “unbelievable” uptick in prescription painkiller sales. While the painkillers were a “Godsend” to many people, others because of stronger and more longer lasting drugs became addicted much quicker.

Prescription drug addiction can be expensive, she said, and heroin represents a very cheap alternative.

Drug overdoses in Allegheny County are not limited by age, gender or race. However, Dr. Hacker pointed out there are people in their 20s with a large number in their 50s.

“By and large, this is a white scenario right now that we’re dealing with,” she continued. “While there are an increase in females, this is by and large a white male issue that we’re dealing with.”

Opportunities for reducing overdoses in the future include: focusing on physician education to reduce the number of prescriptions for opioids; teaching prevention to kids in school; monitoring overdoses in real time; destigmatizing treatment; use of other addiction therapies; and, drug take back programs for left-over prescriptions.

“I’ve seen this change in the last few years with the young adults in our city just becoming addicted and so hopeless that to them dying is not a bad option,” began Gus DiRenna. An addict, Mr. RiRenna has been clean and sober for more than five years and operates a Narcotics Anonymous program in Overbrook.

It’s a race between the first responders and the addicts who feel they don’t have a lot to live for, he explained. They run away from the service that could save them and do it again.

He told those assembled drug addiction usually starts with prescription drugs out of someone’s medicine cabinet. He admitted he started his addiction that way.

“I speak to a lot of kids and they tell me now for them in junior high and high school it’s harder to get a pack of cigarettes than it is to get heroin,” Mr. DiRenna said. “It’s harder to get a pack of cigarettes in junior high and high school because they go into a drug store and they get carded there and they prevents it from them.”

He said many of the young men he works with started using drugs in junior high and gradually moved on to harder drugs in their early 20s. Those young men never learned any work skills along the way and now they aren’t even able to do simple things like open a paint can or run a lawnmower.

“Not knowing those things puts a great fear in them of ever being able to accomplish anything in life. If I know I can’t open a paint can or I know I can’t push a lawnmower, I never have, what chance do I have of going to college, what chance do I have of filling a job application out and at that point the drugs will take away that misery, that despair just fine for a period of time,” he said.

Complementing the first responders, detox facilities and treatment centers, he said there are some other facilities that are interested more in putting money in their pockets than helping people. There are good and bad half-way houses out there, but they also need programs to continue teaching skills.

David Blenk, from Gateway Rehabilitation Center, said worldwide there are now an estimated there are between 26 and 36 million people that are abusing opiates and heroin as one of those opiates. In the United States in 2012, it’s estimated there were 2.1 million people with a substance abuse problem related to an opioid or prescription drug pain reliever, of those 460,000 were addicted to heroin.

From 2003 to 2013 there was an increase of 50 percent in the use of heroin by males and almost doubled among females.

The largest climb in these numbers are people that are insured, and that people who come from households with a median household income of up to $50,000, he said.

“These are working people in our city,” Mr. Blenk said noting the median household income in Pittsburgh for 2013 was $51,000.

“This isn’t a problem affecting a low income segment, a racial segment, sexual preferences, anything,” he said. “It’s across our region, it’s affecting everyone as a disease.”

He estimated today in the City of Pittsburgh there are over 8,000 opioid addicts.

“It’s a crisis in the City of Pittsburgh,” Mr. Blenk said.

Also mentioned was the passing of legislation last fall in Pennsylvania of a prescription drug monitoring program. He said it was important in limiting the number of on-street prescription pain-killer many people start their addictions with.

Allegheny County Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams said although by the time he sees the addicts, they are already dead, but with the intensive lab at his disposal, he can stream information to OverdoseFreePA.

“What we need, as much as anything, is information about what’s going on,” Dr. Williams said.

He said when he and Dr. Hacker were looking at the heroin overdose problem in April, in all but one case it was actually fentanyl causing the overdose deaths. Only by looking at the actual drugs, can they assess the problem, he added.

Dr. Williams noted three years ago fentanyl wasn’t in the top eight drugs that were responsible for killing people. He expected the overdoses from fentanyl is going to soar in the coming year.

Until an analysis is done on the drugs sold on the streets, they don’t know what is being sold. Sometimes it’s heroin, sometimes it’s pure fentanyl and sometimes it’s a mix of heroin and fentanyl. Using his lab facilities, Dr. Williams said he is able to tell law enforcement what is being sold and what to look for.

Christina Farmatino, from Prevention Point Pittsburgh a non-profit organization, said they aim to reduce the negative public health effects associated with drug abuse, not only for the individual but also the entire community.

“We make people aware of where they’re at instead of where we want them to be,” she said. “Instead of waiting for our clients to change or force them to change in order to access our services we provide them with the services they need in order to make that change.”

They also act as a gateway to the social and health care services their clients need to prioritize their health and reduce their drug use or become completely abstainate.

Councilwoman Rudiak said she hoped the conversation they started that day wouldn’t be the end and would like to include representatives from UPMC and Allegheny health systems in future discussions.


Reader Comments


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019

Rendered 05/18/2020 19:38