We can’t cure the opioid epidemic if it’s not treated as a health crisis
© Getty Images

We’re living with a virus-like disease sweeping our nation. Nearly every community is affected. The rates of death rise year after year. Between 1990 and 2015, the percentages of death more than quadrupled. We lost more people than the population of Pittsburgh. 

It’s the second-leading killer of men in their thirties, making the disease an even bigger threat to their health than being murdered with firearms. 

This killer sweeping the nation: opioid use.

ADVERTISEMENT
Compared to its peers, America is an anomaly. In the U.S., people die from opioids at higher rates than in Western Europe, Canada, or Australia. The U.S. ranks fourth, behind Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

 

If it were a virus, the opioid epidemic would likely be dealt with very differently. Remember the Ebola virus? A single casualty on American soil caused fear nationwide, and each suspected or confirmed case was met with an immediate response from public health officials. In contrast, opioid use lurks behind the scenes. Its victims, along with their friends and family members, frequently are hidden from public view due to the shame surrounding the disease.

For too long, opioid users have been seen as people who make bad choices instead of individuals who need medical care to treat their addiction and measures to prevent them from becoming addicted in the first place. 

Government agencies at the local, state and federal levels must take action – urgent action – to help combat the threat opioids pose to American lives.

Recently, some government officials have begun taking initial steps to address this epidemic through treatment and prevention. Prescription painkillers help drive the problem, so federal and state leaders are targeting these drugs by tightening prescription regulations, changing treatment guidelines, and even suing drug companies.

There are some signs these efforts are having an impact. Opioid death rates slowed between 2010 and 2015. Policy interventions have not begun to reverse these deadly trends, however.

Policymakers at local, state and federal levels should use data on opioid deaths to make the best use of limited funding to drive down the toll of the opioid epidemic. Their efforts should focus on the hardest-hit communities and the places where death rates are rising the fastest.

Those communities are in Appalachia and the Northeast, plus Oklahoma, Ohio, Indiana and the Southwest. The 10 counties with the highest death rates are in New Mexico, West Virginia and Kentucky. And opioid death rates rose fastest in counties in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia between 1990 and 2014.

Stark differences exist even within state borders. In West Virginia, for example, some counties have death rates well below the national average, while others have rates more than five times the national average.

The scale of this epidemic warrants national and local investigations into its root causes. Blaming doctors, drug companies or addicts themselves does not adequately explain what is fueling this massive public health problem.

As the opioid death toll climbs, politicians of both parties should agree this issue needs to be a political, economic and public health priority. It is a priority demanding the same sense of urgency those politicians would feel as if they were combatting a killer virus spreading through every corner of our nation.

Christopher JL Murray, M.D., is the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and a professor of global health at the University of Washington. 


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.