by Vanessa M. Griffith, Colorado Newsline
The prevalence of continuing and emerging threats to public health in the United States has increased exponentially in recent years. From the ongoing two-years-plus COVID-19 pandemic to the current monkeypox outbreak of 2022, Americans — and the global populace as a whole — are facing grim and challenging times.
However, perhaps the most insidious threat to American public health is the growing opioid epidemic. What makes this crisis particularly tragic is the fact that, unlike COVID-19 and monkeypox, opioid abuse is not an infectious disease; rather, it is a non-infectious condition that is generally born out of seemingly benign circumstances: for instance, a surgical patient is prescribed opioid medication (such as oxycodone, morphine, and codeine) to treat moderate to severe postoperative pain.
While the use of prescription opioids is valid and legal in this example, it is important to understand that these pain-killing medications are extremely potent and therefore dangerous, especially when misused or abused. To make matters worse, unlike illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin, prescription opioids are more accessible, as they are found in the homes of the individuals to whom they are prescribed. This creates a potentially deadly situation wherein they may fall into the hands of a young child or adolescent, an unsettling thought that is unfortunately becoming more of a reality. Casualties of the American opioid crisis are usually and generally believed to be adults. However, in recent years, this unforgiving pandemic has negatively impacted pediatric and adolescent populations as well.
Lindsey Toomer’s article “Lamborn, Neguse introduce bill that would increase fentanyl education in schools,” made me aware of a campaign spearheaded by U.S. Reps. Doug Lamborn and Joe Neguse of Colorado to address the growing number of fentanyl-related overdoses among elementary, middle, and high school students across the state. Their efforts culminated in the introduction of the bipartisan “Protecting Kids from Fentanyl Act,” which authorizes K-12 schools to use unused COVID-19 funds to purchase naloxone, a life-saving medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose; train nurses, teachers, and other school officials on how to administer naloxone; and provide fentanyl awareness training and educational material to students.
As a public health professional, I am a staunch proponent of Lamborn’s and Neguse’s act and fiercely applaud them for taking an active and genuine interest in protecting the health of our most vulnerable populations. However, the introduction of this act also serves as a grim reminder of our failure as a nation to prevent illicit opioid drug use from infiltrating the once-safe confines of our children’s schools. The idea that a student as young as 10 years of age can be the victim of a fentanyl overdose is frightening and unacceptable; however, it is a tragic reality that is more common than we may think.
The heightened prevalence of opioid overdose among children and adolescents brings about an additional (and understandably worrying) concern for parents and guardians. Worrying about getting good grades, making friends, avoiding bullies, and being able to resist peer pressure are among the typical concerns of parents and guardians of their school-aged children. Sadly, in the midst of the growing opioid crisis, worrying about being exposed to prescription and street drugs is the latest concern they must also contend with.
How are our children able to gain access to fentanyl and other powerful pain-killers? Improper storage of these medications in the home? Social connections to students and/or non-students who have access to drugs? Whatever the method of access, it is painfully apparent that the opioid epidemic in the United States shows no signs of abating as it begins to establish an unrelenting grip on innocent and impressionable children and adolescents — the future of our nation.
I stand behind Lamborn and Neguse in their desire to address the impact of the national fentanyl crisis on school children. While the crisis remains in full swing, the introduction of Lamborn’s and Neguse’s bill is a promising first step toward successfully combating it in schools.