Health officials address opioid abuse at Wellness Summit

A group of Alaskan women met last fall with U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, telling the senator their emotional stories about facing addiction. The Wellness Summit is the product of that meeting.

At the urging of Sen. Sullivan, officials from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Veterans Health Administration – and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy – gathered Thursday in Palmer to meet with Alaskans and discuss the nation-wide opioid epidemic, and the problematic stigma it’s created.

The Surgeon General said the current opioid abuse crisis in the country started about two decades ago, when physicians were urged to treat pain aggressively.

“But they were urged to do so without being given a lot of training or support in how to do that safely and effectively,” Murthy said. “And that also coincided with the heavy marketing of opioid medications like oxycodone to doctors by pharmaceutical companies.”

“It was also accompanied by just a lack of knowledge about how addictive these drugs were. And what we saw is that from 1999-onward there was a quadrupling in the number of opioid overdose deaths – that coincided with the quadrupling the number of prescriptions that were written for opioids.”

Murthy is on his Turn the Tide campaign tour of the states, spearheading an effort to combat opioid addiction.

“We’ve now come to a situation where we have nearly 2 million people who are addicted to prescription opioids, and the prescription opioid epidemic is leading more people to heroin; it’s also contributing to the spread of HIV and Hep-C,” Murthy said. “And that’s why one of the things that we are doing is actually building a campaign called the ‘Turn the Tide’ campaign, where we are traveling around the country to engage, in particular, with clinicians…doctors, nurses, dentists, and nurse practitioners, to as ask them to join the national movement we are building to change and sharpen our prescribing practices.”

He says Alaskans have shown him that they have the resilience needed to begin the process of recovery.

The Wellness Summit brought together caregivers, medical professionals and federal and state government officials to share information and to find solutions to the opioid abuse crisis that is a nationwide problem.

Recommendations include changes in policy affecting drug treatment, education aimed at prescribers, and more importantly, changing the stigma surrounding drug addiction that prevents many sufferers from seeking help.