The Opioid Crisis Hitting Hispanics in New York

(Photo by frankieleon, Creative Commons license)

In New York City, 52 percent of all deaths by opioid overdose among Latinos are caused by the powerful and dangerous drug fentanyl.

The sudden death of pop singer Prince in April of last year brought to the mainstream the name of the substance, which many people had never heard of before even though it is wreaking havoc across the country.

Fentanyl is an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that has quickly flooded the illicit drug market on U.S. streets, and the number of lethal overdoses it has left in its path has caused an unprecedented public health crisis.

Here in New York City, the situation is so worrisome that the authorities are calling it an epidemic. According to data from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH), 1,268 people died of an opioid overdose in 2016 alone, 50 percent of which were attributed to fentanyl. The figure is higher than the number of deaths by homicide and traffic accidents in the same year combined.

Among Hispanics, the situation is even more alarming. DOHMH statistics show that 52 percent of the 378 deaths by opioid overdose among New York City Latinos in 2016 were caused by non-pharmaceutical fentanyl.

“It is important for the Latino community to understand what is going on with this drug, which is an opioid that is used as an anesthetic. What they are selling on the street, however, is not the same fentanyl you find in the drugstore. It is a semi-synthetic, much more powerful drug,” said Dr. Herminia Palacio, deputy mayor of New York City Health and Human Services.

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Another serious problem city authorities – and [those] throughout the nation – are encountering is that many addicts are buying cheap heroin on the street not knowing that they are injecting or inhaling heroin that dealers have deliberately contaminated or altered with fentanyl.

The same thing happens with opioids consumed in pill form, as is the case with popular painkillers oxycodone and hydrocodone, whose content may have been partially or completely substituted with fentanyl unbeknownst to the user.

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Epidemic in the Bronx

The DOHMH data shows that the Bronx is the borough hit the hardest by the wave of overdoses with heroin and fentanyl, particularly in Latino neighborhoods.

“The Bronx has many issues with overdoses. Heroin has always been the opioid most commonly used in the borough, unlike Staten Island, where the majority of addictions start with pills. That may have to do with the fact that people in the Bronx are less likely to have access to doctors and prescribed medication,” said Palacio.

Like other public officials in the city, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Palacio believes that much of the blame for this epidemic falls on the shoulders of the pharmaceutical industry and some physicians. “Pharmaceutical companies made a significant effort to have doctors prescribe these opioids to relieve pain that could be treated with other medication that were not so addictive. And because heroin is cheaper, when people were unable to obtain these medications, they switched to heroin.”

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Palacio, born in the Bronx of Cuban parents, called on Hispanics with serious drug dependence to not be ashamed to seek help, adding that there are many places in the city where they can get help, support and effective treatment. “Our communities need to know that addiction is a disease just like any other affecting both our mind and our body. It’s like having diabetes or heart problems, and that is why they do not need to feel shame.”

Among the treatments available, the public servant mentioned methadone, a narcotic used to treat people addicted to heroin and other opioids. “There is much stigma in our communities regarding this medicine, but science has proven that it is a very effective medication. People are able to lead a normal life, keep their job, and function when they follow a methadone treatment.”

“There is another treatment with a medicine called buprenorphine, which can be obtained through primary care physicians,” she added.

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