BY LEONARD E. COLVIN
NEW JOURNAL AND GUIDE/NNPA
For the thousands of individuals who suffer from the effects of sickle cell anemia, pain is a common part of their lives.
The inherited disease causes red blood cells of mostly people of African descent to deform into a sickle shape. This inhibits the red blood cells from carrying oxygen throughout the body, which can cause severe pain and organic damage.
So, many of those suffering from sickle cell anemia are prescribed a variety of powerful painkiller derivatives.
Their desire to receive relief may be viewed through the biased lens of racism and criminalization as a result of the opioid epidemic, and deter them from receiving care for their pain.
Many of these painkillers are equal in strength to oxycontin and oxycodone, which many people with sickle cell anemia have been taking since they were children.
They are also the same drugs which are at the center of the nation’s current opioid addiction epidemic which has been causing thousands of individuals addicted to these and other strong painkillers to overdose and die.
Thus, federal and state governments are seeking to pressure doctors to limit their prescriptions of such drugs to patients to curb the deadly trend.
According to Judy Anderson, the executive director of the Sickle Cell Anemia Association of Hampton Roads, a growing number of people who are suffering from sickle cell anemia may be severely impacted by the government’s effort to curb opioid addiction.
Sickle Cell Anemia Association of Hampton Roads is the leading advocacy group in southeastern Virginia for people suffering from the disease.
During a recent interview on the issue, Anderson said that doctors are being ordered to screen and review the prescriptions of people with sickle cell anemia, to determine the necessity of their use of the strong painkillers.
“These people are not addicted to these drugs,” said Anderson. “They are dependent on them because of the pain they are experiencing throughout their lives.
“One lady who called the office Monday, July 10th, told me she took her last pain pill the previous Friday,” said Anderson. “Her doctor is reviewing her case and has not written her a new prescription.”
“Unable to get her pain meds, I am sure she will end up in a hospital, because she went to the emergency room to have her pain treated,’’ Anderson continued.
Anderson said that the woman is bedridden and has other ailments along with sickle cell anemia.
Recently, Anderson has devoted more attention to helping people like this woman and others who may be caught up in the government’s effort to curb opiate addiction, by curbing the number of painkiller prescriptions doctors can administer.
Anderson said that doctors have been telling sickle cell anemia patients to buy 880 milligrams Tylenol or other over-the-counter painkillers to thwart their discomfort.
“But that is just like taking a baby aspirin,” she said. “It’s a Band-aid. It does nothing for these people.”
Anderson mentioned one man who recently released from a state prison. He had no physician to contact upon returning to his community. He is one of the individuals her agency has been working with to help him get through this crisis.
Despite Anderson’s efforts, the emergency room may be his only option for treatment. Further, even physicians in the emergency room, who may assume, because he is a young, Black male, that he is addicted to painkillers and may not treat him effectively.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the state saw 822 opioid overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2016, compared with 811 in all of 2015.
“Almost three people a day are dying in Virginia from an opioid overdose, either prescription or illegal,” said David E. Brown, director of the state’s Department of Health Professions.
For the first time, the regulations apply specific guidelines to Virginia providers, dictating how many opioids can be prescribed depending on the situation and stipulating that other pain treatments should be considered before opioids are prescribed.
Before prescribing opioids, providers must do a thorough physical examination and determine the patient’s history. The patient also must be given Naloxone—a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
Part of the effort of new guidelines in the state, according to Anderson, was to limit the number of people using opioid-based painkillers in the long run.
But, according to Anderson and other advocates, in the short term, addicts seeking relief for their pain may go to street vendors and secure heroin or the more deadly painkillers, such as Fentanyl.
What to do
Anderson said that people who are suffering pain episodes due to sickle cell anemia and have had prescriptions for pain meds delayed because their physicians are “reviewing their cases,” should go to the emergency room anyway.
She said ER physicians may hospitalize them and administer pain-relieving medicines. However, the patients will not be released with a prescription of painkillers, due to new state regulations.
If that happens, Anderson said the patients should go back until their prescriptions have been filled.
Anderson said that a medicine called Hydroxyurea, which has been used in chemotherapy for cancer has been found to be effective in bolstering the body’s resistance to problems associated with sickle cell anemia and relieving pain.
“It’s the only option they have,” Anderson said.