Surgeon General visits Palmer to discuss opioid epidemic

Drug addiction, long viewed as a moral failing, is now recognized as a chronic brain disease. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy brought this message to the Alaska Wellness Summit in Palmer on Thursday. Substance abuse caregivers, recovering addicts and health officials rubbed shoulders at the day-long meeting, with the common aim of combating the opioid abuse epidemic in Alaska.

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Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General (Photo courtesy of the office of the Surgeon General)
Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General (Photo courtesy of the office of the Surgeon General)

The Alaska Wellness Summit was organized by Senator Dan Sullivan, who kicked off the meeting by introducing five Alaska women.. all recovering addicts.. who are now working to help others find hope for a path out of addiction.

“This hits everybody.. in reading the statistics, all of us know what is happening out there. Since 2010, the number of heroin overdose deaths in Alaska have increased tenfold.”

The statistics linked to drug overdose deaths in our state are alarming.. twice the national average in some years. Of the opioid-caused deaths in Alaska last year, more than 2/3 of them were caused by prescription drugs. And that is exactly where US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wants to begin his campaign against opioid addiction.

Murthy said 2 million people in the US are addicted to opioid drugs. The current crisis in the country started about two decades ago, when physicians were urged to treat pain aggressively… but not given training in how to do so.

“And what we saw is that from 1999 onward, there was a quadrupling in the number of opioid overdose deaths, and that coincided with the quadrupling in the number of prescriptions that were written, prescriptions for opioids.”

Murthy wants to reverse that trend, and is spearheading an effort to combat opioid overprescription. And he wants to change how society views drug addiction, which is now considered a disorder.

“We began a war on drugs that became a war on people who use drugs,” Murthy said.

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

And it is the willingness to begin recovery that is essential in the individual sufferer if recovery is to be long term. Jeff Jesse, CEO of the state Mental Health Trust Authority, knows that better than anyone.

“My name is Jeff and I ‘m an alcoholic”

Jesse introduced himself, saying he’s been sober for a decade. He’s also co-chairs the state’s opioid task force.

“Addiction can happen to any of us, and we need to end the stigma today,” Jesse said.

Jesse said new state legislation has helped to decriminalize drug use, while Medicaid reform legislation helps to address funding for battling addiction. But more is needed, and Jesse asked the federal officials present to help Alaska integrate behavioral health care with primary medical care. He called for substance abuse disorder professionals in emergency rooms to help addicts, and support for prescription drug monitoring programs.

Dr. Mary Wakefield, deputy secretary of the federal Health and Human Services department, said reversing the opioid abuse trend is urgent. 78 people die every day in the US from opiod overdose.

Rural communities are hit particularly hard, Wakefield told the group. In fact, the states with the highest rates of addiction are rural states. She said in

in 2014, 124 people died overdose deaths in Alaska. And many victims started with a prescription for pain medication. She pledged HHS funds to help the fight.

“HHS is commited to three-part strategy to reduce opioid abuse, led by a move to make health officials aware of inappropriate opioid prescribing, combined with plans to expand access to both treatment and to the medication nuloxone, which can reverse the need for opioids,” Wakefield said.

The Wellness Summit focused on solutions, rather than blame. Recommendations include changes in policy affecting drug treatment, education aimed at prescribers, and changing the stigma surrounding drug addiction that prevents many sufferers from seeking help.

Christina Love, one of the women who inspired the summit, now is an advocate for domestic violence victims in Juneau. She said she’s been there herself, and found her way out

Love said she grew up in a family with generations of substance abuse and suicide. She told the conference, “those generations end with me.. that door is closed.”

She said non-judgemental compassion and love helped her to choose a healthy lifestyle, and her work as a recovery coach now can help others.