The ‘White Plague’ Problem

The Middle Ages was characterized by the “black plague,” or the “black death,” a pandemic that reduced the world’s population by about 150 million people, including half the population of Europe. Research revealed that the cause was a bacterium eventually named y. pestis, spread by rats and rat fleas. Antibiotics, good sanitation and pest control are the keys to preventing a recurrence of the disease, which still exists in parts of the world.

Fast forward several centuries and now we are facing the “white plague,” the name a take off on the white powder of heroin. There are many worrisome addicting substances in addition to heroin, such as nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, pain medications prescribed or stolen, cocaine, methamphetamine, “mushrooms”, hallucinogens, etc. The black or bubonic plague had a defined cause. This is definitely not so with the white plague or drug addiction. Possible causes and predisposing factors are stress, trauma, mental illness, depression, anxiety, loneliness, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, genetic predisposition, experimentation, often in adolescents, peer pressure, lack of family involvement, poor nutrition, homelessness and prescription drug use. Experts believe that the origins of addiction are 50 percent genetic and 50 percent environmental. There is no one simple cause and accordingly there is no one simple answer. Treatment cannot be one size fits all.

Drug addiction stories and its consequences are often in our local, regional, national and international news. Some call it an epidemic. Drug use has escalated beyond imagination along with associated deaths from accidental overdoses, suicides, automobile accidents and certain infectious diseases. Accidental overdoses are on the rise partly because additives may be mixed with the signal drug, for example heroin can be laced with other active ingredients such as fentanyl which is several times more potent than heroin itself. Users have no way of telling what this recipe for disaster is, what other drug may be in with the heroin they thought they bought, and even if they have an idea, they don’t know how much. Addiction needs overpower the individual’s judgment about the danger involved. Also on the rise are crimes such as robberies to support drug habits. Our Jamestown Police Department has been dealing with a growing problem in our city and has been proactive and successful in its efforts. They report that the last two years especially have seen a rapid growth of the drug problem. The Post-Journal has been responsibly reporting various aspects of the situation and between the two organizations, we are constantly reminded of the magnitude of the problem facing us.

We have to recognize that as excellent a job as our law enforcement does, they cannot do the job alone. The health care system in general is not yet organized to take care of this growing problem from the insurance coverage point of view as well as gaps in a patient-centered approach. Also, professionals in the field are under the impression that we in the public are not as aware and educated about the problem as we should be, in spite of the considerable publicity. There is also concern that young people are not knowledgeable about the terrible consequences of drug addiction. People don’t realize that even one hit of heroin can lead to a downhill course for them. These drugs hit the pleasure center of the brain, tolerance develops and therefore more and more of the drug is needed to reach the desired effect. Reading the stories of those who are addicted, one learns that if they had any idea of what was going to happen to them, they would never have experimented with such highly addicting substances. Finally, there is concern that agencies, which are individually working hard, are not able to collaborate as much as is needed, perhaps due in part to their separate funding streams.

Given that this is a very complicated problem to solve, what are the simple things one can do to help out and be aware of?

Talk to children carefully about the dangers of drugs, so that they know how you feel about it.

Know that addiction most often starts in adolescence, but the brain’s frontal lobe doesn’t mature until the 20s. This is where decision making, risk analysis and judgement reside. Also, these functions become impaired with addiction because of pathways that have been “rebuilt” or rewired during adolescent drug use and addiction. This is the reason for the collision course persons afflicted with addiction take.

It is very important to have prevention programs for kids, especially those at risk.

Model responsible behavior.

If a parent or grandparent has an opiod prescription in the home for pain relief or after surgery, place it in an unexpected place (hidden), not in the medicine cabinet. Drugs in the medicine cabinet can be taken by young people or anyone in the house for any reason, including a robber. Believe it or not, kids steal from the medicine cabinet in their own homes.

Discard any unused pain medicines at the Jamestown police station in the special drug drop off box. There is also one in the Sheriff’s Department. This is a very important strategy.

Be aware that this problem crosses all lines-age, sex, race, education, rich and poor alike. Apparently, no one is immune.

Be open and understand the need for individualized, long-term, non-traditional and innovative treatment methods.

We need to understand that this is something that all sectors need to get involved in. This includes being educated, aware and alert. All agencies, hospitals, physicians, schools and faith-based organizations need to work together. The county is to be commended on its initial Drug Forum and its continuing work with the Drug Abuse Steering Committee. This steering committee meets again on July 23 from 1 to 3 p.m. at JCC. A physician specializing in addiction medicine will give an educational lecture to the area’s medical staff on September 10. The Health Care Action Team of Jamestown’s Strategic Planning and Partnerships Commission is planning a community education lecture at Jamestown Community College in September, the date and details to be announced soon. Please plan to attend this important lecture.

Drug addiction is a huge public health problem. It is a devastating, chronic disease for which there is no easy cure. The goal is to bring patients afflicted with this into stable, long-term remission. Prevention would be an obvious first strategy.

Dr. Lillian Vitanza Ney worked at WCA Hospital in various positions from 1974 through 1995, including director of medical education, cardiology director, wellness director and vice president of medical affairs. After retiring from private practice in 1997, she helped found Jamestown Area Medical Associates, becoming medical director of JAMA and WCA Hospital. She has also served on the Jamestown City Council, including a term as president; was a longtime member of the Gebbie Foundation board, including a lengthy stint as president. She is now co-president of the Jamestown Renaissance Corp. board of directors, serves on the board of the Jamestown Strategic Planning and Partnerships Commission and leads the commission’s Health Care Action Team.