To refer to the opioid “epidemic” is to imply at least two things. One is that opioid use is spreading with a speed and severity that threatens not just the lives of users but their families and communities as well. The other is that at some point it will subside. Both things are true.
The opioid epidemic is doing massive, often destabilizing damage. And it will end.
In 2016, the CDC reported over 63,000 lethal drug overdoses in the US, two thirds of which involved opioids. That’s an 18-fold increase in drug overdose deaths in less than 20 years. Texas’ overall rate of use and overdose is lower than the national average, but the state has seen a nearly 300 percent increase in lethal opioid overdoses in the last two decades. In Texas as elsewhere, opioid addiction is hollowing out families in every community, affecting people of all races, faiths, and incomes.
At some point, if the opioid crisis is like every other substance use crisis in the nation’s history, the trend will reverse. Rates will go down.
To say this is not to encourage complacency. People who’ve died won’t come back to life. Ruined lives won’t be magically redeemed. Families and communities that have been wrecked won’t necessarily heal.
Our knowledge that this epidemic will end, and that it’s not as bad in Texas as in many other parts of the country, shouldn’t encourage passivity. It should energize us to bring about that end sooner, to bend down the trend line as fast as possible.
The work that we highlighted in a recent issue of “Texas Health Journal” is dedicated to precisely that. Our people (at the The University of Texas System) are working on non-addictive pain drugs that will diminish the need for prescription opioids. They’re determining the best possible treatments for people with addictions. They’re distributing Naloxone, the overdose drug, and teaching people how to administer it. They’re working with pregnant women, prescribers, new mothers, high school students, college students, first responders.
Across the system, and the state, UT people and institutions are urgently working to help people with opioid use problems, prevent new addictions, save lives, change medical practices, and help our state get healthier.
Dr. David Lakey is Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs & Chief Medical Officer for the University of Texas System