America’s Opioid Epidemic in 2018

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The current opioid crisis is unlike anything we’ve seen in the United States before. It’s dangerous, deadly, and it seems to be getting worse every month. The question is: What is being done to stop it… and is it enough?

The opioid crisis is dark, harrowing, and devastating. It torments millions of Americans and their loved ones, for whom there often feels like no escape.

According to this infographic which represent less than 5 percent of the world’s total population, consume 75 percent of all prescription drugs manufactured around the world. During the course of any given month, an estimated 6 million Americans use prescription drugs illegitimately.

Opioids like codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine are the most commonly abused drugs. Despite having received increased coverage in the media, the opioid crisis continues to spiral out of control.

According to data gathered by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • Somewhere between 21 and 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. Approximately 8 to 12 percent develop an opioid abuse disorder.
  • Perhaps most shocking is the fact that 4 to 6 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids eventually transition to heroin. (Viewed from the other side, 80 percent of people using heroin first misused prescription opioids.)
  • Opioid overdoses in large cities increased by 54 percent from July 2016 to September 2017. The Midwestern region saw a sharp increase of 70 percent.

When you study the alarming rise of the opioid epidemic in the U.S., you’ll see that it’s fundamentally tied to two primary issues. “The first issue was the significant rise in opioid analgesic prescriptions that began in the mid-to-late 1990s,” NIDA explains.

“Not only did the volume of opioids prescribed increase, but well-intentioned healthcare providers began to prescribe opioids to treat pain in ways that we now know are high-risk and have been associated with opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose, such as prescribing at high doses and for longer durations.”

The second substantial issue has been the healthcare system’s inability to identify and treat addicted individuals with evidence-based opioid addiction treatment plans. As a result, addicts have been left to suffer alone … which often forced them to turn to other drugs, including heroin.

As the opioid problem continues to expand into a serious national health crisis, many have wondered what’s being done to combat the problem. Though plenty remains to be done, here’s a look at some of the current initiatives, strategies, and action steps:

  1. HHS Framework

In April 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services developed and published a five-point Opioid Strategy that it hoped will lay the framework for multiple solutions. The comprehensive, evidence-based approach seeks to:

  • Improve the access to prevention, treatment, and recovery services so individuals have a better chance of achieving long-term recovery.
  • Target the availability and distribution channels of overdose-reversing drugs to ensure that addicts have greater access to them (with a specific focus on high-risk populations).
  • Improve public health data reporting and collection so more data are available in real time (which will help the public understand the severity of the epidemic as it continues to evolve).
  • Support state-of-the-art research that advances understanding of pain and addiction. This should lead to the development of new treatments.
  • Advance the practice of pain management so opioids become less of a default and people may recover from health issues without the need for high doses of prescription medication.

While this framework is still relatively new — and it by no means represents an exhaustive list of what HHS is doing — small wins are already occurring on this front.

  1. AMA Opioid Task Force Progress

The AMA Opioid Task Force has been one of the leading voices in the fight against the opioid epidemic. The goals of the task force are to register and use state prescription drug monitoring programs; enhance education and training; support comprehensive treatment for pain and substance use disorders; help end the stigma associated with opioid addiction; co-prescribe naloxone to patients who face a high risk of overdose; and encourage safe storage and disposal of opioids and other medications.

According to a recent report released by the AMA, the approach seems to be working. Prescriptions of opioids have fallen by 22.2 percent between 2013 and 2017, and there’s been a 121-percent increase in the number of times physicians accessed state databases for prescription drug monitoring programs.

  1. Stiffer Penalties and Repercussions for Prescription Drug Dealers

Although not everyone agrees with this approach, the Trump Administration has given a lot of attention to the opioid crisis. In particular, the president and his cabinet have called on Congress to pass legislation that lowers the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for dealers who knowingly distribute illicit drugs.

President Trump has also declared the nation’s opioid epidemic a public health emergency, which creates new opportunities for action on a governmental level.

“With the public health emergency declaration,” report Kaitlyn Schallhorn says,
“officials are able to more easily deploy state and federal workers, secure grants for the unemployed and shift funding from certain programs — such as HIV or AIDs programs — to provide substance abuse treatment for certain individuals.”

President Trump has also been clear about his expectation to see the number of opioid prescriptions cut by a third within three years: an aggressive yet necessary goal.

  1. Greater Public Awareness

At the heart of almost every strategy for fighting the opioid crisis is some sort of boost in public awareness. That’s because little progress can be made until more people see the matter as a serious epidemic.

In June of 2018, the White House announced a new multimillion-dollar public awareness advertisement campaign that seeks to curb the appeal of opioid addiction for young people. The campaign consists of four ads: Each tells a rueful tale that illustrates the lengths to which young adults have gone to get hold of drugs such as Oxycodone and Vicodin.

“We hope these ads will spark conversation to educate teens and young adults to talk to their doctors about alternatives to opioids; that pain management may not always mean extended pain medication use; safe disposal practices for leftover, unused prescription; and also, to arm them with specific yet very simple knowledge about opioids,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters following the announcement.

There’s still much to be done in the fight against the opioid epidemic, but there’s no shortage of attention and energy directed toward it… both within the medical community and in Washington. And though it’ll take time, the hope is that victory is not far around the corner.

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