As of 2018, more than 3 million people in the United States were addicted to opioids. Since then, the nation experiences 28,000 deaths annually due to this addiction that could have been avoided. Unfortunately, as public health agencies, healthcare professionals, and local, state, and federal government officials try to curb and eliminate this growing epidemic, it becomes increasingly difficult to fully comprehend the problem and find solutions. When it comes to treating opioid overdoses, here are five important lessons that have been learned since the problem became a national epidemic.
Drug Combinations and Overdose Deaths
While many people who die from opioid overdoses do so by taking only the opioid, research has shown a growing number of overdose deaths involve combining the drug with other substances. Known
within the medical and drug treatment fields as polysubstance abuse, it presents numerous new challenges in the public health field. According to pathologists and forensic toxicology experts, most overdose deaths involve the use of more than one substance. Experts recommend we not only pay attention to the opioids being used, but also other warning signs seen with other substances, like binge drinking.
A Need for a New Approach to Addiction
According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, the U.S. needs to adopt a new approach to addiction and its treatment. For example, by failing to realize early on that opioid addiction should be treated as a primary and chronic disease with life-threatening consequences, health officials and doctors allowed the problem to fester far longer than necessary. Now the government recognizes this and has increased funding that is being allotted for opioid addiction research, and prevention programs are now in place for young people and others who find themselves struggling with addiction.
Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)
This treatment, commonly referred to as MAT, is now being used more and more across the country to help opioid addicts who have suffered overdoses on multiple occasions. Using this approach, various medications are combined with behavioral counseling to help a patient overcome their addiction and decrease the chances of another overdose. For example, in a study done in Baltimore involving opioid addicts who had previously overdosed, researchers found that by combining the drug buprenorphine with intense behavioral counseling, opioid overdoses decreased by 37 percent within one year.
In addition, by using MAT to treat these individuals, research found they were more likely to stay in therapy, have reduced criminal activity, and be less likely to transmit infectious diseases such as AIDS.
Emergency Rooms Play a Critical Role
When most opioid addicts overdose, they wind up in the ER of a local hospital. While in the past doctors simply tried to save the patient in order for them to be released in only a few hours, today’s modern hospitals take a more proactive approach to this epidemic. In many emergency rooms, behavioral counseling specialists now meet with the overdose victim to initiate MAT. By doing so, it becomes possible to not only screen these patients for other problems such as depression and alcoholism, but also makes it twice as likely that they will remain engaged in a treatment program, versus those patients who are simply given referrals for treatment programs and then discharged.
As more and more information becomes available regarding opioid addiction, overdoses, and treatment, an emphasis on science-driven solutions has emerged in recent years. Using this approach, a variety of new avenues have opened up in this area. One of the most promising involves the development of vaccines to prevent opioid addiction and overdoses. With these vaccines which are currently under development, opioids in the bloodstream are targeted and destroyed, thus keeping them from reaching the brain and having the much sought-after euphoric effects.
The opioid epidemic is a complex issue that stretches beyond the drug and into society itself and all of her issues. However, by continuing to learn from previous information and striving every day to uncover more, more and more people are finding the solutions and support they need to deal with the problem. Whether it is MAT, the development of a vaccine, or perhaps behavioral counseling in a drug treatment program, those suffering from opioid addiction have many glimmers of hope ahead of them