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Another shocking statistic about the opioid epidemic

As more people die, the opioid epidemic leaves grandparents suddenly responsible for the grandkids.

There are many shocking statistics about the opioid epidemic: In the US, drug overdoses now kill more people than cars or guns, overdoses now kill more people than HIV/AIDS did at its peak, and overdoses between 1999 and 2015 killed more people than the population of Atlanta.

And yet, here’s another one, from Megan Doyle at the Portland Press Herald in Maine, that managed to surprise me:

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services removed 411 children from Maine homes where a parent’s drug use put them at risk. That’s a 45 percent increase from 2009, and Jim Martin, the director of the Office of Child and Family Services, said the prevalence of drug use is likely underreported by caseworkers.

While much of the reporting on the opioid crisis has (rightly) focused on the anguish of addiction and overdose, this statistic conveys the kind of secondary effects that these types of epidemics can have. It’s not just that a lot of people are dying; it’s also that these deaths disrupt every aspect of people’s lives, leaving children stranded with no parents, forcing grandparents or other family members to take care of the kids, and demanding that public services pick up the slack where family can’t.

Matt Baker of Stow, Maine, who was suddenly forced to take care of his grandchild, shared his experience with the Portland Press Herald: “It was a shock. You’re 49 or 50 years old, and you’re thinking about retirement, and all of a sudden you’re raising a 9-month-old.”

These are the kinds of community effects that trickle out from drug addiction and overdose deaths: They strain public resources like health care, child services, and foster care, and force people to change their lives in ways that can be negatively disruptive to the economy and society more broadly.

This is one reason that confronting opioid addiction, the research suggests, could pay for itself over time. As health economist Austin Frakt wrote for the New York Times, “[T]he Comparative Effectiveness Public Advisory Council conducted an economic analysis of expanding opioid treatment in New England states. The council found that as access to treatment increased, total costs of treatment also grew, but savings to society increased even more rapidly. The result is that greater treatment actually saves society money. For instance, New England states could save $1.3 billion by expanding treatment of opioid-dependent persons by 25 percent.”

This is, beyond the overdose deaths, one reason the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis. It’s truly an issue that’s in some ways affecting all of us, even if it’s just our wallets and even we don’t all see it in our day-to-day lives.

For more on the opioid epidemic, read Vox’s in-depth explainer, the abridged version, or the maps and charts version. And check out the Portland Press Herald’s special project on the opioid epidemic.

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