Opioids: A Surging Crisis in Rural America


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In 2017, the CDC revealed that drug overdose fatalities are continually rising in rural communities, even surpassing rates in urban areas.

Additionally, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the American Farm Bureau Federations (AFBF) discovered that the opioid epidemic has directly impacted as many as 74% of farmers. Latinos make up roughly 23% of the agriculture industry, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and opioid use is on the rise in this demographic.

“Opioids have been too easy to come by and too easy to become addicted to,” AFBF president Zippy Duvall said in a statement. “And because opioid addiction is a disease, it’s up to all of us to help people who suffer from it and help them find the treatment they need.”

What Are Opioids?

These drugs voyage through your blood and attach to opioid receptors in your brain cells. Then the cells release signals that muffle your perception of pain and boost your feelings of pleasure.

They can be made from the poppy plant or synthesized in a laboratory. Common legal examples include morphine (Kadian, Ms Contin, others) and fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, others).

Heroin, an illegal opiate that is primarily injected, offers its own health risks, such as an increased probability of hepatitis C (HCV), risk of HIV infection, and the dangers of an accidental overdose.

Opioid overdoses have risen by at least 52.5% in the Latino community since 2016, according to the CDC.

When taken correctly and as directed by your doctor, opioids are safely used to control acute pain, such as pain after surgery.

However, since the late 1990s, addiction to these drugs have skyrocketed because of the pharmaceutical industry’s assurances these drugs would not become habit-forming, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

rural opioid

Opioids & Rural America

The opioid crisis refers to the widespread misuse of prescription pain relievers in America. There are many factors that contribute to abuse including:

  • Low education attainment
  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • High-risk behaviors
  • Isolation

Nearly 11.5 million adults abused pain relievers in 2014, According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Approximately 1.5 million of those adults lived in a rural area.

In cases of non-medical use of prescription opioids, 4.9% of rural adults and 5.9% of urban adults reported abusing these drugs, stated in an article published in the International Journal of Drug Policy. Furthermore, rural adolescents are more likely to misuse prescription painkillers than their urban counterparts, reported a 2015 study.

Heroin use in rural areas has also increased due to prescription drug abuse. Additionally, heroin has become more prevalent in rural, as well as suburban, areas due to its affordability and accessibility.

Opioids & Impact on Rural America

The AFBF and NFU funded a Morning Consult survey to illustrate the extent of the crisis facing farm and ranch families.

When it comes to drug abuse in rural communities, the survey found:

  •  74% of farm workers are or have been directly impacted by opioid abuse, either by knowing someone, having a family member addicted, having taken an illegal opioid, or having dealt with addiction themselves.
  • 76% of farm workers say it is easy to obtain a large amount of prescription opioids or painkillers without a prescription in their community.
  • 75% of rural adults recognize that opioid abuse can begin accidentally with the use of what are deemed safe painkillers, or opioids.
  •  50% of farm workers say addiction to opiates is a disease, rather than due to a lack of willpower.

Concerning knowledge about the opioid crisis in rural communities, the survey found:

  • 31% of rural adults are aware that rural communities are the most affected area by the opioid crisis.
  • 34% of rural adults say it would be easy to access treatment for addiction to prescription drugs or heroin in their local community.
  • 38% of rural adults are confident they could find care that is either effective, covered by insurance, convenient, or affordable.
  • 31% of rural adults say there is a great deal of stigma associated with opioid abuse in their local community and that the stigma contributes to the overall problem.
  • 68% of rural Americans, however, believe increasing public education surrounding resources
  • 57% of rural adults believe in reducing the shame or stigma around opioid addiction are effective means for solving the opioid crisis.

Combating the Crisis

There are many initiatives ongoing to address the opioid epidemic in rural areas such as:

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union campaign, Farm Town Strong.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) partnership to create addiction recovery transitional housing in rural communities. Moreover, the USDA collaborated with the Office of National Drug Control Policy to launch a White House Rural Opioid Federal Interagency Working Group. They are improving the coordination of federal resources in rural America.

Researchers in San Antonio also are educating first responders in Bexar County (60% Latino & surrounded by rural counties) how to identify and reverse opioid overdose.

Rural Health Information Hub has countless of resources online, both federal and other national initiatives, to assist rural communities.

Learn more about rural health!

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