Photo: Jacquelyn Martin, AP
WASHINGTON (AP) – The number of deaths from US drug overdose has calmed down after years of unrelenting increases from the opioid epidemic, Health Minister Alex Azar said on Tuesday ( 19659048) "We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we may be at the end of the beginning," said Azar at a health event sponsored by the Milken Institute
Facing the opioid epidemic was the rare problem, Republicans and Democrats in a politically divided nation. Former US President Barack Obama passed a bill providing important funding for treatment. More money followed earlier this year under President Donald Trump. And tomorrow, Trump is expected to sign bipartite legislation this month, which among other things, improves access to treatment.
More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Summer – an increase of 10 percent over 2016. Health and Human Services – the Azar Heads Department – is playing a central role in the government's response.
In his speech, Azar suggested that multi-pronged efforts to bring the epidemic under control pay off. He tapped statistics showing an increase in treatment with medications such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. There is solid evidence of drug-assisted treatment when used alongside counseling and ongoing support. He also noted a much wider access to overdose drug Naloxone and a documented decline in the number of people abusing prescription opioids as physicians are more prescriptive.
Azar said this towards the end of last year and from the beginning of this year, the number of deaths "plateau" has begun. Azar did not suggest deaths were declining, but noted that they seem to be rising more slowly than before.
Earlier this month, the CDC released figures – also tentative – that seem to show a slowdown in overdose deaths in late 2017 and the first three months of this year. From December to March, these figures show that the rate of increase has slowed from 10 to 3 percent in the last 12 months, according to preliminary CDC figures.
Despite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest overdose epidemic in its history. Opioids were involved in most deaths, killing nearly 48,000 people last year.
While the number of prescription opioids and Heroine is on the decline, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine deaths are on the increase. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is much stronger than heroin and is used as an additive for street drugs.
Propaganda addicts said they do not believe that the crisis can be resolved quickly or easily. "Even if we begin to torpedo opioids, we still have a serious problem with addiction and the hopelessness and desperation that so many communities feel in this country," said Chuck Ingoglia, vice president of the National Council for Behavioral Hygiene.
In the final year of President Barack Obama's administration, his government secured the extension of treatment, and Congress provided $ 1 billion to the states. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Two large finance bills have gone under his supervision. While Trump made headlines with his call for the use of the death penalty against large drug traffickers, his government has built on the treatment approach that Obama favored.
The Medicaid extension in Obama's Affordable Care Act has also played a crucial role in paying for low paid adults to get treatment. A recent Associated Press analysis showed that states that expanded Medicaid spent their new Congressional opioid grant money more rationally and went beyond the basics of treating people in crisis. Trump tried to lift the Medicaid extension, but failed.
Proponents of the treatment say that they are pleased that more and more addiction is considered a disease rather than a sign of moral weakness. But they say the US has a long way to go to build a so-called "supply infrastructure," a system that includes prevention, treatment, and recovery.
In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, a CDC expert said overdose deaths seem to be changing for the better, but it's still too early to draw any definite conclusions.
Month-to-month data shows a flattening of the number of deaths, said Bob Anderson, a senior statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics. However, these figures are considered provisional, as the death investigations were not completed in all cases.
"It seems we have peaked at this time and may see a decline," Anderson said. "It reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the 1990s."
The final figures for 2018 will not be available until the end of next year, and things could get worse, not better.
___  AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson reports from Seattle.
CDC Drug Addiction Overdose Dashboard – https://tinyurl.com/y75vu2dv