Confirmation that gender-bending rock legend Prince died of an opioid overdose adds an iconic face to an tale of descent into addiction stemming from prescription medication that has become all to familiar for many American families.
Rumors that the singer had become dependent on prescription medications began circulating soon after his death at his Minneapolis home on April 21. He was said to have suffered a dangerous mid-flight overdose just days before his death.
A Jehovah's Witness and closed-off star, Prince had a reputation for clean living. But at the time of his death, longtime friend Sheila E. told the Associated Press that Prince was battling hip and knee problems from years of dancing and jumping off stages, leading to rumors of a subsequent drug overdose.
Doctors routinely prescribe opioid medications, such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet, to relieve pain. The US Drug Enforcement Administration defines these drugs as Schedule II, meaning they are considered dangerous "with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence."
"Around the United States, communities have been struggling to craft policies to deal with what has become one of the most pressing issues facing society – the misuse of painkillers, which in turn leads some people to start taking heroin," the Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo wrote in March. "Their efforts range from advocating tougher law enforcement to educating doctors to putting limits on the amount of painkillers that can be prescribed to patients. Exacerbating the problem is the discouraging reality that only about 20 percent of those who struggled with illicit drug use in 2014 received treatment, a government survey found."
And a recent report suggests physicians have decreased the amount of opioids prescribed overall. For the first time in two decades, opioid prescriptions in the United States has declined. Since its peak in 2012, opioid prescriptions have declined by at least 12 percent.
But opioid use is still running rampant across the US. At least 17 states have seen drug overdose rates more than triple since 2001.
In 2014 there were 28,000 opioid deaths with 18,000 of them coming from legal, prescription drugs. But this prescription increase offers a glimmer of hope as "overprescribing [has] been very closely associated with the rise in deaths and the rise in overdoses," Sabrina Tavernise, from The New York Times, explains in an interview with PBS News Hour.
And while babies and children are not the abusers of these drugs, they are often the victims. In the US, one baby is born every 25 minutes with neonatal abstinence syndrome – symptoms stemming from a mother's opiate use. This rate amounts to 22,000 babies a year, five times the amount from 2000. Schools are having to add new resources to help students cope with with their parents’ opioid addictions, as the Monitor reported earlier this month.
"The addiction is so strong and lethal that these kids are becoming parents to their parents," Sue Meagher, program director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of New Hampshire, told Ms. Khadaroo.
But young Americans are not the only ones affected by the nation's opioid epidemic.
Veterans die from drug abuse at twice the rate of the average population, a 2011 study by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs found. With veterans suffering from war-related pain and injuries, some overbooked VA doctors feel as if they have no choice but to prescribe powerful drugs.
"We do not have another silver bullet that we can say, 'Instead of opioids, take this,' " Dr. Carolyn Clancy of Veterans Affairs told PBS Frontline. "It's much more a matter of individualizing and trying different alternatives, and that can be really frustrating for patients as well as for clinicians."
Congress passed a slate of drug abuse bills earlier this month, with one specifically targeting an opioid abuse epidemic among veterans of the nation's armed forces and another aimed at helping infants born with symptoms related to neonatal abstinence syndrome. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016 has been passed by both the House and the Senate and now awaits signature from the president.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.