On Jan. 22, 2008, Academy Award-winning actor Heath Ledger was found dead in his New York apartment. He was only 28.
Rumours quickly swirled about the circumstances surrounding his death. Was he just another victim of the celebrity party scene? Did he take his own life?
But, according to the New York City chief medical examiner’s office, Ledger died from another, less obvious cause: an accidental overdose of prescription medications. Those meds were a potent mix of painkillers, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety drugs, including the opioid oxycodone.
Ledger’s death was big news, but the reason behind it? Not so much. “There are literally thousands of people like this,” said Dr. David Juurlink, general internist and clinical pharmacologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics at the University of Toronto, at a recent ISCEBS breakfast seminar.
Opioids have been around for a long time, he explained—dating back to 3,600 BC, in fact. But the scope of how they’re used has expanded significantly over time.
Morphine was first marketed commercially in 1827, and heroin was introduced by Bayer in 1898. By the 1970s and ‘80s, many doctors were comfortable prescribing opioids for pain management in cancer patients, Juurlink said. By the ‘90s, opioids were commonly used to manage chronic pain.
All of these developments have resulted in what he and others refer to as the “public health crisis” of opioid addiction.
“[Canadians] now face a public health crisis of exceptional scale – an epidemic fueled by well-meaning doctors, expectant patients and corporate interests, and perpetuated by governmental inertia.”
– David Juurlink, Canada slow to respond to opioid addiction crisis, The Globe and Mail
But, hold on…managing pain effectively is a good thing, right? Isn’t improving quality of life, as well as quantity of life, what drugs are meant to do?
Yes. But the statistics on opioid abuse reveal a bigger issue than a single celebrity overdose.
Did you know that, in Ontario, about 10 people die accidentally from prescription opioids every week? That more years of potential life are lost to opioid use than to alcohol abuse, HIV/AIDS, pneumonia or influenza? Or that it’s possible to become dependent on an opioid after just one week of taking it?
Think opioid addiction is only a problem for street heroin users? Think again. @HRInsights http://ctt.ec/Ukg_z+
I sure didn’t. I understood there are people who abuse painkillers, just as some abuse alcohol. But I had no idea the problem was so big—that opioid addiction leads to so many preventable deaths.
So my question is, Why aren’t more people talking about it? My generation grew up with the “Say No to Drugs” campaign…but no one really made a connection to the pill bottles in our parents’ medicine cabinets.
I think it’s partly a stigma issue. We’d like to think that only heroin addicts living on the street die from drug abuse. But evidence suggests it happens to people just like you and me, every day.
Maybe it takes a visible, public death like Ledger’s to bring the problem to light. But it won’t stay in the dark for much longer.