Sense of urgency needed to fight the opioid crisis

Imagine if the nation’s top health officials made a dramatic announcement this morning about a just discovered disease.  The dire warning said that perhaps as many as 50,000 people in this country would die this year from that disease.

What if they also predicted that first responders and emergency departments would be swamped by individuals deathly ill from this new health threat that did not discriminate by race, age or socio-economic standing?

To make matters worse, these health officials would warn that those infected would be unable to care for their children, leading to a surge in child neglect and abuse cases, as well as a significant increase in the need for foster care.

Additionally, those infected would lose their ability to work or behave rationally. They would begin stealing from family members and rob stores and banks without thought to the consequences.

The health officials would predict that many would be caught and put in jail, but that would not cure the disease.  Most will be just as sick when they get out of jail and the cycle will start all over again.

If that were the news today, how would the country respond? I suspect the dire predictions would shock us into action. We would collectively proclaim that the horrific outcomes are unacceptable in America. We would engage the considerable energies of a wealthy, learned and caring country and solve the problem.

By now you know I’m not talking about some made up scenario.  This is precisely what we have now in America with the opioid crisis. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the problem continues to worsen.

CDC Acting Director says emergency department visits increased a whopping 30 percent in the U.S. from July 2016 through September of 2017.  “Long before we receive data from death certificates, emergency department data can point to alarming increases in opioid overdoses.”

The increase in overdoses is predictably accompanied by a rise in deaths.  The CDC reports opioids were involved in 42,249 deaths in 2016. That’s five times higher than 1999.  West Virginia had the highest per capita death rate at 52 per 100,000 people.

The opioid drug problem is officially an epidemic, as defined by the CDC, because of the sudden and dramatic increase in the number of cases. We don’t have a simple solution because there is none.  President Trump’s sophistry about executing drug dealers may appeal to our base instincts, but it isn’t a viable answer.

Not even jail seems to make a significant difference. A Pew Research analysis found “no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and drug use, overdoses and deaths.”

America always finds a way to heal itself. Our culture is geared toward striving to find answers to complicated problems. If the epidemic were announced just this morning, our heightened sense of urgency would inspire a “moon shot” effort.

Of course we did not just learn of the opioid epidemic.  In fact, it has been growing for two decades, but we need a response as though we just found out about it. The slow burn does not diminish the nearly unimaginable human and financial toll that continues to spread across the country.






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