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Another Voice: Opioid crisis demands comprehensive approach

By Kevin M. Gibas

Earlier this month, President Trump broke his silence on the opioid epidemic for the first time since taking office in January. Both the president and the secretary of health and human services held press conferences acknowledging the dangers and severity of this epidemic. Later in the week the president even went as far as to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.

The recent political attention and media frenzy surrounding the opioid epidemic has many people asking what are opioids and why they should care so much about these drugs.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illicit drug heroin as well many commonly prescribed pain medications such as oxycodone, morphine and numerous others. Although these medications can be great for treating pain, we have learned that they also have a high potential for abuse, addiction and overdose.

Drug overdose, specifically with opioids, is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. In 2016, almost 52,500 people died from opioid drug overdoses alone. To put this in perspective, the surgeon general’s 2016 report states that this is roughly 142 deaths every day and a death toll equal to that suffered during the Sept. 11 attacks every three weeks.

An even more disturbing finding from the surgeon general’s report was that despite the known dangers and problems associated with opioid use and drug addiction, only 10 percent of people suffering with opioid addiction have access to proper treatment and support for their addiction.

This begs the question of how we will begin to combat this epidemic, provide people with addiction treatment and begin to curb the number of opioid-related deaths. Many states have already declared this epidemic an emergency that has allowed them to dedicate additional funding and personnel to try innovative approaches to tackling the opioid crisis. With these additional resources, many states have begun developing opioid prescribing guidelines and training law enforcement on the use of naloxone, a medication that helps reverse overdoses. These emergency declarations have also improved states’ ability to follow data about the epidemic.

Combating this problem is something that will require more than state-wide programs alone. If we intend on finding a solution to the problems posed by the opioid epidemic, we will need a comprehensive national plan that has funding and support from both the federal and state governments.

The recent report by the White House Opioid Commission provided numerous sound recommendations and guidelines for tackling this epidemic. The commission’s report included strong recommendations for increasing funding for mental health services, substance abuse treatment, drug monitoring programs and training law enforcement on the use of naloxone.

I implore the president and Congress to take the commission’s recommendations seriously and lead the fight against the opioid epidemic.

Kevin M. Gibas, M.D., originally from Buffalo, is a resident in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass.

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