The Opioid Crisis

In 2014, the most recent year for which we have measurements, 47,055 Americans died from drug-induced deaths, with almost 29,000 dying from opioids, whether heroin, illicit synthetics, or some combination of these. Within this tabulation, drug-induced deaths would stand ninth amongst “leading causes,” just below influenza/pneumonia, and kidney disease. The deadly poisons are produced in illicit labs, primarily in China and Mexico, and then smuggled or shipped in small but extremely potent quantities through various smuggling routes.

There is a useful lesson in the Zika alerts. Common to the public health responses are efforts that go beyond simple warnings to communities. Authorities also move to control mosquito populations, and to eliminate the environmental conditions that foster them. Through this lens, our failures to meet the opioid crisis can be seen in sharper perspective. We are not taking seriously the realization that opioid abuse is a public health threat that calls for similar sorts of epidemiological actions. We need urgent alerts and directed responses to constrain or eliminate the sources and supplies of the deadly drugs.

In March, the president spoke about the crisis as if he were a distant observer, calling the overdose deaths “heartbreaking.” But if any one person has the power to change that reality, it is President Obama himself, even in his final months in office.

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