It’s Time to Talk About the Opioid Crisis as a Women’s Health Issue

At the beginning of the Oscar-nominated short documentary Heroin(e), centered on the town of Huntington, West Virginia, deputy fire chief Jan Rader speeds to a local pub, sirens blaring. By the time she arrives, a woman is already being wheeled out on a stretcher after overdosing in the bathroom. Not a minute passes before another call comes over the scanner: a second overdose, this time a 23-year-old who didn’t make it. This is an everyday reality for Rader, and she’s not alone. Across the country, as the opioid crisis continues to worm its way into rural outposts and cities alike, fatality rates are staggering: The epidemic claims as many as 115 Americans lives daily, according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a newly published study recording a 30% increase in emergency visits for overdoses across all states between 2016 and 2017.

The 39-minute Netflix Original, directed by Peabody Award–winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon, tracks the issue on an intimate scale, following three women as they confront the scourge of addiction in their hometown. Judge Patricia Keller presides over drug court, Necia Freeman supplies meals to local sex workers through the town’s ministry, and Rader patrols the streets. Their front-lines perspective shines a light on an overlooked truth: While the majority of such fatalities are men, the toll on women is grim, with an 850% increase in opioid-related deaths between 1999 and 2015, almost double the rate for men, according to Linda Richter, Ph.D., director of policy research and analysis at the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse. Digging into the reasons for this disparity reveals a patchwork of factors tied to opioid-use disorder, ranging from gender-biased biological data to treatment centers without child care. The point, as outlined below, is that this national crisis is just as much a women’s health one, and treating it as such is crucial.

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