Michael Wenye Li / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Ronald Harris-Warrick, neurobiology and behavior, addresses trends in the opioid epidemic in New York at a panel on Tuesday.

March 30, 2018

Panelists Address Growing Opioid Epidemic On and Off Campus

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In a panel hosted by MEDLIFE, Alpha Phi Omega and Cornell Emergency Medical Services, a group of drug addiction, treatment and policy experts educated students on the local and national implications of the current opioid epidemic and trained attendees on how to save lives with Naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdoses.

Dr. Justine Waldman, an emergency medicine doctor in Ithaca, Prof. Ronald Harris-Warrick, neurobiology and behavior, Katharine Celentano, a New York Policy Office policy coordinator and Chad Lazar, paramedic for Cornell EMS and Bangs Ambulance, spoke on the many nuances of the opioid issue and drew upon their experience in research, education, public policy and service centers.

More than 115 Americans die daily from opioid overdose, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The economic burden of opioid overdose in the US is $78 billion, including healthcare, productivity, treatment and criminal justice costs.

Winnie Ho ’19, president of Alpha Phi Omega and MEDLIFE Cornell and an organizer of the event, thought the event was a good opportunity to “hear from experts in the field about the realities of drug use and what it looks like.”

“This was meant to be an educational event and a space for people to get familiar with the issue,” she said. “We had a packed room.”

From 2015 to 2016, New York was one of the states with the largest increase in opioid overdose, according to Matthew Guo, vice president of MEDLIFE. Harris-Warrick noted that “the rate of deaths is exponentially growing, … [and] there’s no sign of it slowing down.”

This pattern of increased opioid use has also extended to Cornell. Lazar, who has been with CUEMS since 2011, said they never saw opioid overdose when he first started on campus and lamented that the issue has become increasingly pervasive.

Waldman emphasized that the opioid epidemic is “a public health disaster that has roots in stigma.”

In fact, “less than 20 percent of people that try any drug, including heroin, become addicted,” Celentano said after Waldman’s statement.

The factors that drive addiction are far more complex than most believe, according to Celentano, who said that child abuse, trauma, poverty and social isolation are common catalysts.

She prompted the audience to look at the opioid epidemic through a different perspective, saying “the oversimplified way in which we think about addiction has impaired our ability to think about … and properly respond to it.”

Opioids hijack the pathways of the brain by simulating feelings of pleasure, reward and empathy, according to Harris-Warrick. This encourages an “aberrant form of learning” where the addict associates this pleasure with the drug and their surroundings.

Recent research, however, has resulted in a new drug called PMZ21 that reduces pain in a similar way to morphine without causing respiratory depression, constipation or nausea. He expressed the possibility of doctors transitioning away from tolerance-evoking prescription drugs, like morphine, once more research is conducted on the new treatment.

After the panel, Emily England, director of the Harm Reductions Program at the Southern Tier AIDS Program, and Jared Alpern, CUEMS EMT, educated students and attendees on bystander intervention and how to administer Naloxone to those identified as potential victims of opioid overdose.

“Naloxone saves lives,” Celentano said. “Every single fatal overdose was completely preventable. All that needed to happen was someone needed to administer Naloxone.”

“It’s important to make sure that the solutions that we propose and implement … end overdose for all people in New York and all people everywhere,” she added.