At the height of the HIV epidemic in 1995, the number of AIDS deaths per year in the United States peaked at more than 50,000. A massive public health and scientific research response has steadily driven that number down to the point where an HIV infection can now be considered a lifelong chronic — but not fatal — disease.
The public health challenge of the current decade is an epidemic of equal proportion. Each year more than 30,000 Americans die from a prescription opioid or heroin overdose. As health authorities pushed doctors to treat chronic pain, the pharmaceutical industry promoted new opiate pain medications as nonaddictive. Physicians wrote millions of prescriptions flooding the streets with powerful narcotics and addicting a staggering swath of the population. As buying prescription pills on the street became more expensive, many turned to cheap black tar heroin that had become increasingly easy to find.
By 2015, opioid overdoses claimed thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands more were dependent. This year, the man-made epidemic will claim the lives of some 500 Oregonians, more than automobile accidents or guns.
Now lawmakers and public health officials, many of whom have been touched by the overdose death of a loved one, are taking steps to rein in the oversupply of prescription opiates and help dependent individuals get the care they need to break their cycle of addiction.
Over the course of this year, through the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Reporting Fellowships on Health Care Performance, supported with a grant from The Commonwealth Fund, I will be exploring how the health care system is responding to the opioid epidemic.
In a series of stories to be published in The Bulletin, I will be reporting on the effectiveness of the response, exploring which approaches are working and what strategies are falling short. Even the best intended measures will have unintended consequences and may affect different groups in different ways.
I’m interested in hearing about how this epidemic and the response to it is impacting patients and doctors, family members and addicts. I invite you to contact me if you have a story to tell or if you have concerns about how these developments will impact you.
I’ve put together an online survey at bendbulletin.com/opioidsurvey and I’m inviting anyone who has been affected by this epidemic to complete it. There are separate sections for patients, providers, family members and those with addictions. Please know these responses will be held confidential and nothing will be shared without express permission.
— Reporter: 541-633-2162, firstname.lastname@example.org