Amid a surge in government funding to fight drug abuse in the United States, the number of overdose deaths increased at a slower pace from 2016 to 2017, figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed. Drug-related deaths climbed by 10 percent in 2017, slowing down from previous years. And tentative numbers for 2018 showed overdose rates rose by only 3 percent in the first three months of the year, according to the CDC.
Even so, last year more than 70,000 people died from overdoses, and 48,000 of those cases involved opioids.
“We are so far from the end of the epidemic,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in late October in a speech at a Milken Institute healthcare event. Azar’s boss, President Donald Trump, has declared the opioid crisis a national emergency and two weeks ago signed an $8.5 million bill to fund additional efforts to fight it.
Azar said there’s evidence addiction can be successfully treated with medication. The approach uses managed doses of other opioid drugs such as buprenorphine and naltrexone to wean someone from opioid addiction gradually without producing a “high.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has said medication-based treatment helps keep people in therapy long enough to address their internal problems and can be effective if “combined with behavioral counseling for a ‘whole patient’ approach.”
The NIDA cited a study from 2009 showing buprenorphine helped decrease heroin overdose deaths by 37 percent in Baltimore during the period studied. Another more recent study of Rhode Island inmates who went through medication therapy in 2016 and 2017 showed a decrease in overdose deaths among prisoners recently out of jail.
In the past two years, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two new medications for treating opioid addiction: Sublocade is a monthly injection containing the opioid buprenorphine, and probuphine is an implantable drug made of the same opioid.
Some critics—notably former HHS Secretary Tom Price—decry using one drug to limit cravings or dependence on another while underlying issues go untreated. On a listening tour in West Virginia last year during his brief tenure as secretary, Price told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much.” —Rob Holmes