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Reframing the Opioid Epidemic as a National Emergency

In the past two decades, more than 700,000 people have died from opioid overdose, with states including West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania suffering the worst losses.

More than 10 million people misuse prescription opioids each year, according to government studies, and millions of Americans are addicted to pain reliever medications.

Opioid addiction, overdose and death are among the most consequential preventable public health threats facing the nation, professors from Georgetown University, Arizona State University and the University of Pennsylvania wrote in an article in the Journal of American Medical Association.

Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, created a Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, and secured $6 billion in funding to fight opioid abuse.

Declaring opioid addiction an emergency gives public health officials additional powers and resources to develop new strategies and tactics to address the crisis.

The commission delivered a 138-page report that made numerous recommendations for combating opioid addiction, including encouraging healthcare and pain management professionals to rein in opioid prescriptions and limit refills, shutting down “darknet” illicit drug distributors, expanding medication assisted treatment (MAT), and providing more support for state and local addiction treatment programs.

Some insurers have also restricted coverage for opiate drugs, and the opioid overdose-reversal drug Naloxone is now widely available over the counter for people who are concerned that friends or family may be at risk for overdose.

In late 2019, President Donald J. Trump announced another $1.8 billion in funding for states to expand access to treatment and gather better near-real time data on addictions, overdoses and deaths.

Drug overdose deaths in the United States dropped about 5% in 2018, the first decline in nearly three decades, according to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 68,557 drug overdose deaths in 2018, and about 70% of them were from opioids, preliminary data show.

While that’s good news, it still means that 2018 was the second-most deadly year for drug overdose deaths in American history.

“This is the first time in 25 years that overdose deaths will not have increased and have come down a little bit,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of Opioid Policy Research at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, told CNN.

He added: “There’s certainly nothing to celebrate, because even with the slight reduction we’re still experiencing an enormous death toll.”

It’s critical to continue to prioritize proper prescription methods, addiction prevention, treatment and overdose intervention, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a press release.

“This crisis developed over two decades and it will not be solved overnight,” Azar said.