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Editorial Dealing with the opioid health crisis

September 16, 2018

In a state that is slipping in so many ranking categories, it is a dark twist to have the National Institute of Drug Abuse put it in the top 10 states with the highest rates of fatal opioid overdoses. That is a top 10 list where no one wants to be.

The state’s rate of opioid deaths more than quadrupled from 5.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2012, to 24.5 in 2016, the NIDA said. The alarming trend continued to escalate.

Think about it: Connecticut went from 357 opioid deaths in 2012 to 1,038 last year.

For perspective, 285 people died in traffic accidents in the state last year, according to preliminary numbers from the Connecticut Crash Data Repository at the University of Connecticut. A total of 65 people died from influenza in last flu season in Connecticut, according to the state Department of Public Health.

We respond to possibly preventable deaths, as we should. State and local police step up enforcement in high-risk times, such as long holiday weekends. People are urged to get flu vaccines, which are as easy to obtain as walking into a local pharmacy.

Where is the urgency for prevention with a far greater number of people — from all parts of the state and the range of social status — when it comes to opioid overdose deaths?

A stigma lingers over the addiction and that must be addressed along with direct treatment. Chemical addiction is a disease.

If there is a sliver of positive news recently, it is that the number of opioid overdose deaths this year will likely be similar to last year, state Chief Medical Examiner James Gill said Thursday. That is still much too high, but at least the exponential increases seem to have leveled off.

A closer look at the death rates shows that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is to blame for more than half of the accidental overdose deaths since 2016, and 740 of the projected 1,030 overall deaths this year. Fentanyl is stronger than heroin or morphine so less is needed to overdose and drug dealers aren’t necessarily careful in mixing it.

Dealing with the opioid overdose crisis requires a three-pronged approach: enforce, such as by arresting dealers; educate, and treat. More primary care physicians should become educated in the use of medication-assisted treatment, such as methadone and buprenorphine, which have been effective for reducing cravings and preventing relapses.

The Opioid Crisis Response Act would increase the number of patients, from 100 to 275, who qualified doctors can prescribe medication-assisted treatment.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote next week, finally, on that comprehensive bill which would authorize $500 million per year through 2021 to help states fight opioid addiction. It includes requiring the Postal Service to detect shipments of synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl, that often ship from Mexico and China.

We urge the Senate to pass the bill and Connecticut to get off that ignoble top 10 list.

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