HHS Secretary Discusses "Plateau" Of The Opioid Epidemic

By Victoria Kim 10/25/18

Health Secretary Alex Azar discussed the state of the opioid epidemic at a recent health summit.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar
HHS Secretary Alex Azar Photo via YouTube

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. may be plateauing, but it’s still too soon to know for sure.

“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” said U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar at a recent Future of Health Summit in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday (Oct. 23).

Azar said that the rate of drug overdose deaths had “begun to plateau” toward the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018. More than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdose in 2017, a 10% increase from 2016, according to preliminary figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Azar’s remarks also reflect recent CDC figures from this month which show that from December 2017 to March 2018, the rate of increasing drug overdose deaths over the last 12 months has gone down from 10% to 3%, suggesting a slow-down. However, these figures won’t be final until all death investigations are completed.

“It appears at this point that we may have reached a peak and we may start to see a decline,” says Bob Anderson, senior statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics, according to AP. “This reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the ‘90s.”

Azar, who heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, cited the success of multi-pronged efforts to mitigate the opioid crisis.

Promoting medication-assisted treatment (with drugs like buprenorphine, naltrexone and methadone), the use of naloxone, and increasing scrutiny on doctors’ prescribing practices have all played a part.

However, AP reports that while opioid deaths may be leveling off, “deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise.”

The New York Times reported in February that “meth has returned with a vengeance.”

“At the United States border, agents are seizing 10 to 20 times the amounts they did a decade ago,” the Times reported. “Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper or more lethal.”

Fentanyl is now notorious for being the synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Though traditionally it is a pharmaceutical drug, illicitly-made fentanyl is said to have fueled rising rates of drug overdose deaths in the U.S.

This month, the maker of Narcan (naloxone) announced plans to release a new opioid overdose antidote that will match the strength of increasingly potent fentanyl analogs.

“Compounds like fentanyl, carfentanil and other synthetic opioids act for longer periods of time. The concern is that naloxone’s half-life doesn’t provide sufficient cover to prevailing amounts of fentanyl in the blood,” said Roger Crystal, the creator of Narcan and CEO of Opiant Pharmaceuticals, in a past interview.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr