Glimmers Of Hope In Theopioid War

June 20, 2018 GMT

The devastating course of the opioid overdose crisis is such that a deep dive into the data usually is necessary to find any progress. But the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council and the American Medical Association have reported developments that might indicate the beginning of a long-term positive trend. According to the AMA, Pennsylvania doctors wrote 14.7 percent fewer prescriptions for opioid pain relievers in 2017 than in 2016, from 9.5 million to 8.2 million. That did not diminish the overdose death toll, which soared by 44 percent statewide in 2017 to 5,200, prompting Gov. Tom Wolf to declare a public health state of emergency in January. But reducing the number of prescriptions is a major step in the long-term fight. Many addicts become addicted to prescription opioids before moving on to more powerful and less costly heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil or combinations. Most overdoses are on illegal drugs rather than prescription opioids, but reducing the number of prescriptions likely will produce fewer addicts and, in the long term, fewer deaths. Last week, the Pennsylvania agency reported a slower rate of hospital admissions for overdoses statewide and, in Lackawanna County, a significant decline from 74 in 2016 to 48 in 2017. That could reflect a number of factors, ranging from the wide availability of the antidote naloxone to more patients being discharged from emergency rooms rather than admitted. But it, like fewer prescriptions, indicates incremental progress that, in the long term, might translate into fewer deaths. Although the developments are not definitive, they are encouragement to maintain the fight in terms of public health — education, fewer prescriptions, alternative painkillers such as medicinal marijuana and so on — and law enforcement to curb the flow of heroin and even more powerful opioids and arrest traffickers who prey on misery. In an unprecedented epidemic where no one is sure what progress even looks like, the prescription and admissions data offer at least a glimmer of hope.