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How can we end the opioid epidemic?

by Catherine Tims

Philip Seymour Hoffman, known for the title role in the film Capote, was an esteemed, Academy Award-winning actor. Loved by fans, praised by critics, and respected by his peers, he’ll be forever considered an icon of his generation of actors.

Unfortunately, he may also be remembered for his untimely death as a result of a heroin addiction. Since his overdose two years ago, he’s become an example of the terrible opioid epidemic in the United States.

Congress just recently passed a bill that aims to rid the country of this epidemic, hopefully saving the lives of thousands of individuals just like Mr. Hoffman.

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How bad is the opioid epidemic?

According to a report issued by the White House, there was a 45 percent increase in heroin-related deaths between 2006 and 2010.  What’s even more alarming are the stats relating to opioid pain relievers (OPR), which often serve as gateway drugs for heroin.

While heroin deaths totaled 3,038 in 2010, OPR deaths in general were at an alarming 16,651. And that represents a 21 percent increase since 2006. Meanwhile, cocaine deaths have been falling steadily during that same period.

There’s a new bill in Congress.

Just this month, Congress passed a landmark bill that some say has the potential to reverse these addiction problems. It’s called the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), and one thing it authorizes is increased access to naloxone.

The so-called “overdose drug”, naloxone reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and has been an essential item in emergency rooms since the epidemic began. Once injected or sprayed into the nose, it works to stop an overdose within two minutes.

You may have heard of Narcan, which is actually the brand name of the nasal spray, whereas the drug itself is just called naloxone. Naloxone saves lives by binding to receptors in the brain, essentially shielding them from any further effects of the opioids. Then the breathing process – which has been slowed down by the overdose – can start up again.

Naloxone shots are carried by first responders, and now thanks to the recently-passed bill, more people will have access, too. Now, family members, people working in community centers, and schools will have access to the pens that help stop overdoses.

Naloxone is just the beginning.

Of course, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act isn’t just about increased access to naloxone. Obviously, reviving addicts who are near death isn’t going to put an end to the problem. As many in Congress have noted (and fiercely debated with their opponents), treatment and prevention is key.

The anti-addiction bill, which is now on its way to the White House for President Obama’s signature, does address this issue. Law enforcement officers may soon start choosing to treat drug offenders with alternative sentencing rather than shipping them off to jail. Plus, there’s plenty in the bill supporting increased treatment and prevention measures.

So, while naloxone saves lives (and now more of them can be saved thanks to this bill), it’s not going to solve the problem. Only time will tell if the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act will help put an end to this terrible epidemic.

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