‘They’re here, then they just die’
At first glance, Manchester, New Hampshire, seems a typical New England town. A pleasant, low-key sort of place, free of extreme poverty or urban decay.
You do not have to look far, however, to see something is amiss: this is a town firmly in the grip of the opioid crisis that is devastating America. Dotted around the central squares and parks are small groups of people visibly suffering from addiction. Yesterday, hundreds of residents took part in a ‘‘rally for recovery’’ in the town centre, gathering to highlight the plight of their friends and neighbours.
On the walls of the Hope addiction recovery clinic, a few hundred yards away, are pictures from a kayaking expedition. Karla Gallagher, who works at the clinic, cannot look at it without becoming close to tears.
‘‘We lose these people all the time,’’ she said, pointing to a picture of a smiling young girl on a canoe. ‘‘We lost her. One day they’re here and then they just die.’’
Gallagher lost her own brother to addiction. Her story is not unusual. Everywhere you go in Manchester, someone has a friend, a sibling, a niece or a cousin who has died because of drug addiction. Many of those affected are ordinary working people, who began with a prescription for a sore back and ended up dying with a heroin needle in their arm.
Last month, following the recommendation of a presidential commission, Donald Trump declared that America’s opioid crisis was a ‘‘national emergency ... the likes of which we have never had’’. He appointed Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, to tackle the problem.
The crisis has been steadily worsening for more than a decade. Figures show that in 2016 more than 64,000 Americans - 175 a day died from drug overdoses, a 22 per cent increase on 2015.
The spike is largely driven by a single drug, fentanyl, an opioid that can be up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. It claimed 20,000 lives last year.
Carfentanil, a version of it, was developed as an elephant tranquilliser. Yet those hooked on opioids are seeking out this often fatal drug, which is trafficked through New York and Boston up into New Hampshire.
Five hundred deaths from opioids were reported in the tiny ‘‘granite state’’ last year alone. It has been described by its governor as ‘‘ground zero’’ for the opioid crisis.
The state government is taking matters into its own hands. Last month it filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that many hold partially responsible for the beginning the crisis. It has made billions from the widely used opioid OxyContin.
The lawsuit alleges that Purdue ‘‘aggressively marketed opioids’’ to doctors and patients and engaged in ‘‘unfair or deceptive market practices’’ by ‘‘significantly downplaying the serious risk of addiction posed by OxyContin’’.
Purdue’s sales teams were ‘‘pill pushers, putting these pills out to as many people as you can’’, said a person with close knowledge of the lawsuit. ‘‘They treated it like Pepsi-Cola.’’
Purdue denied the allegations, but said ‘‘we share New Hampshire officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis, and we are committed to working collaboratively to find a solution’’.
The company has already paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in charges relating to the misbranding of OxyContin, including US$634.5m to resolve a justice department investigation.
Orman Hall, former head of Ohio’s opiate action team, accused the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the pharmaceutical industry, of being complicit in the scandal.
‘‘They’ve protected these guys, but they haven’t protected Americans,’’ he said. ‘‘This is still a crisis of unparalleled proportions. We’re going to look back on this period of time and be shocked that it was allowed to occur.’’
He added: ‘‘The pharmaceutical industry has spent vast amounts in the political arena.’’
So far, the only real solutions to the crisis have come at the community level, at centres like the Hope clinic. Treatment and recovery centres are dotted around town. Fire fighters carry naloxone, which helps combat overdoses.
‘‘It’s still bad out there, but we are at least confronting the problem,’’ said Gallagher. ‘‘Compassion and openness are on the rise in the community.
‘‘There are still people who think it’s a moral failing, but there’s a willingness to talk about it now. I think that’s helping.’’
- Sunday Times
Opioid addictions kills 175 Americans every day.