Response to the June 2017 New Yorker Article on the Opioid Epidemic

At this point, I would think that knowledge about the vastness and seriousness of the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic, the biggest threat to American health and well being since the HIV/AIDS epidemic, would be common knowledge. Of course, given the abundance of shiny Internet things to tantalize easily distracted Americans, this is unfortunately not necessarily the case. Thankfully the New Yorker, with their characteristic excellence in reporting, has just released a superb and humanizing article on the opioid epidemic in their June 5 & 12, 2017 issue.

Read the article here.

The piece puts a much-needed human face to the horrors and misery of opioid addiction and the too-frequent death by overdose. Margaret Talbot, the article’s author, zeroes in on Berkeley County, West Virginia, in the heart of a region of the country hardest hit by the epidemic. I don’t want to give away much (because you should actually just read the article) except that the stories are heart wrenching yet balanced, and thorough in way that only the New Yorker can deliver. While the article is largely about the lives of people affected by and fighting against the epidemic, I was disappointed with a couple of points that were either made incorrectly, weakly, or not at all.

First, the article barely talks about how the epidemic arose in the first place. It mentions Purdue pharmaceuticals, the bastards behind Oxycontin (drug name: oxycodone), and that prescription opioid abuse led to heroin addiction but does not describe how the surge in addiction to prescription opioids occurred in the first place. The article describes the main problem with Oxycontin is that it can be crushed and snorted but a 2010 formulation of the drug reduced this risk. While this is indeed true, the article neglects to mention that when someone is first prescribed an opioid like Oxycontin for chronic pain (as was the case in the late 90s and early 2000s despite any evidence for the effectiveness of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain), the addictive potential of opioids often led to opioid substance abuse disorder in people who took it as prescribed (see this comprehensive article for more info). This is the big point, many of the people that eventually abused opioids started down that road by taking the drug as prescribed! Talbot incorrectly frames the big picture problem but she then goes on to correctly describe how those addicted to prescription opioids found their way to the cheaper and more abundant heroin.

The article goes on to mention the CDC’s release of guidelines on opioid prescription but fails to cite that this guidance came out as late as March, 2016, well after the epidemic had already taken root and thousands were already addicted and dying of overdose (I wrote an article on the CDC’s guidelines last year and highly recommend you read that article too if you want to learn more). The CDC’s guidance is mainly about the point I made above, that the over-prescription of opioids is the real cause of the epidemic, not just the crushable version of Oxycontin, and the limitation of opioid prescription is one of the huge policy interventions that is needed.

Later in the article, Talbot introduces us to Dr. John Aldis, a retired U.S. Navy Physician and resident of Berkeley County, WV who took it upon himself to educate people on how to use Narcan (generic drug name: naloxone), the treatment for opioid overdose. Dr. Aldis makes the critical point about the importance of medication-assisted treatments such as Suboxone (generic drug name: buprenorphine) and methadone. I appreciated the point made in the article that some patients may need these vital treatments long-term, or even for life, to combat the all-consuming single-mindedness of opioid addiction. However, beyond this passing mention, I felt that medication-assisted treatment was only weakly covered. There is still a great deal of ignorance about these treatments. Indeed, current HHS secretary Tom Price falsely characterized them as “replacing one opioid with another” and was majorly criticized by addiction experts. The reality is that there is overwhelming scientific evidence (I’ve written plenty on this site) describing the effectiveness of methadone and buprenorphine at 1) keeping addicts off of heroin, 2) allowing them to be able to live their lives without suffering from withdrawals and cravings, and 3) most importantly, keeping them alive. Talbot could have done a much better job of really hammering these points home but she seemed reticent, for some reason, to discuss it in detail in this article.

Finally, the article repeatedly emphasizes the importance of rehab clinics and tells the story of a huge victory for Martinsburg, WV (a town in Berkeley County) when the city council agrees to open a clinic in the town itself. I do not want to discount the importance of an addict assessing their addiction and taking an active role to end it, but this article does miss another critical point: rehab clinics only exist because addiction medicine is not part of medical school curricula and most hospitals are ill-equipped to treat those suffering from addiction. I feel this article could have really made the case for the importance of training for doctors in addiction medicine and the necessary shift that needs to happen for addiction treatment, a move away from overpriced (and often ineffective) private rehab facilities, and to public hospitals. Unfortunately, this point was not made.

Despite these missed opportunities, I commend Talbot and the New Yorker for a well-written article and thank them for this important piece that I encourage all to read.

 

The Laws You Never Heard Of that Will Help to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

When a politician is in his or her final few month in office (because either they lost their re-election or simply decided not to or can’t run), they call this the “lame duck” period. President Obama’s last few months in office were anything but “lame”.

On December 14, 2016, in a rare move of bipartisanship, Obama signed into law the massive 21st Century Cures Act. This law provides a boost in funding for NIH (which includes $1.8 billion for the cancer moonshot initiative), changes to the drug approval process through the FDA, and ambitious mental health reform. This huge bill has the stated purpose of “To accelerate the discovery, development, and delivery of 21st century cures, and for other purposes.”

I’m willing to bet many people were totally unaware of this legislation that could help millions. There are some parts that are controversial and, as with any large piece of legislation, some provision that benefit this interest or that have been worked in (the changes to drug approval at the FDA will likely benefit Big Pharma). I’m not a health policy expert so I’m not about to go through and discuss line-by-line the winners and losers in this law (if you want a more in depth discussion: NPR, Washington Post, and PBS have all written articles on the law).

There’s one piece of the law that I am particularly thrilled about: $1 billion over 2 years for treatment for opioid addiction. That’s rights billion, with a “B”. The money is to be distributed to states in the form of block grants (block grants are in essence a large allocation of federal money to be used for a specific purpose given to states but the details of how that money is used is decided by the states themselves).

This is an unprecedented amount of funding earmarked exclusively to fight the opioid epidemic that is still raging in the US. The funding is to be used for expanding and increasing accessibility to treatment, such as life saving medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and buprenorphine. The federal money will also be used to train healthcare professionals to better care for people dealing with addiction, and a comparatively smaller amount for conducting research on how best to fight the epidemic, and other provisions.

I’ve written about methadone and buprenorphine and their effectiveness ad nauseam on this site and I am personally and thrilled to see a massive federal effort to increase access to these vital tools in the fight against the opioid crisis

The Cures Act comes on the heels of another promising piece of legislation, the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), signed into law by President Obama on July 13, 2016. This law includes provisions to expand the availability of naloxone–the medication used to save people from the effects of opioid overdose–to first responders, improve prescription drug monitoring programs, make it easier for healthcare providers to administer, dispense, or prescribe medication-assisted treatments, and other provisions.

The combination of these two pieces of legislation is a promising and much needed initial federal response.

However, this huge boost in funds for treatment in the Cures Act is only for 2-years. President Trump’s budget for FY18 would add $500 million for opioid addiction but most analysts think this is just a sneaky way of making it seem as if he’s supporting addiction treatment when the money has already been written in as part of the Cures Act. Further, his cuts to the Department of Health and Human Services (which contains the NIH and other agencies that administer the Cures and CARA laws) would make it difficult to launch any type of  effective response to the crisis.

Regardless of how things shake out, Trump’s massive cuts for everything that’s not the Department of Defense will likely hurt the fight against the opioid epidemic too. The real question is by how much?

 

5 Facts on the Opioid Epidemic: National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

Well, I’m a little late to the punch on this one but National Drug and Alcohol Facts week has been going and ends tonight. This public awareness campaign is now in it’s seventh year and is all about shattering the myths about addiction.ndafw_logoI might as well throw my belated hat in the ring and share 5 facts about the opioid epidemic.

Fact #1: The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has hit all demographic groups, regardless of race, gender, age, location, or socioeconomic status.

Fact #2: Prescription opioid pain medications like oxycodone can be just as addictive as heroin, even if taken as prescribed.

Fact #3: There is no scientific evidence that prescription opioids are effective at managing chronic pain; they are extremely effect for short-term, acute pain.

Naloxone_(1)Fact #4: Naloxone is a drug that counters the effects of opioids and can immediately reverse an overdose; you cannot get addicted to naloxone.

Fact #5: Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids that can help a person to fight their heroin addiction by satisfying their craving for the drug.

To learn more, here’s a short “Best of” from Dr. Simon Says Science on the Opioid Epidemic. Check out the posts below for oodles of info on opioids.

  1. What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?
  2. The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!
  4. Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently
  5. Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic
  6. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Works-End of Story
  7. Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids
  8. New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) Calls for an End to the “War on Drugs”

war-on-drugs-no

A recent editorial in the British Medial Journal (the BMJ) has called for an end to the “War on Drugs”, which costs about $100 Billion/year and has failed to prevent both drug use and drug proliferation.

The article points out how the “War on Drugs”, the term used to collectively describe the laws penalizing drug use, has had a wide-range of negative effects. For example, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and about half of those arrests are due to drug-related arrests.

The health effects have been drastic as well. Stigma against opioid replacement therapies like methadone has resulted in increased deaths due to opioid overdose in countries that limit access. Stigma and discrimination against addicts, as well of fear of punishment for for usage, often leads away from health care services to unsafe drug-use practices that can spread HIV and Hepatitis C, and other unintended poor-health outcomes.

Importantly, the editors call for rational, evidence-based, drug-specific approach to regulation and strong involvement of  the scientific and medical communities. Obviously, the risks of something like marijuana are much lower than for heroin but how will drug policy reflect this? Research is required to support any efforts in order to identify the best practices and strategies.

The editors point out that a recent article in the Lancet “concluded that governments should decriminalise minor drug offences, strengthen health and social sector approaches, move cautiously towards regulated drug markets where possible, and scientifically evaluate the outcomes to build pragmatic and rational policy.”

Above all, a change in drug policy must benefit human health and there will be no “one size fits all” approach. The road ahead is difficult but one thing is certain, the road that led us here is a dead end. The “War on Drugs” has failed; the call now is to develop a national and international drug policy that won’t.

The NIH Announces a Commitment to Research on LGBT Health

lgbt-med

Every person has a right to live a healthy life. One part of that vision is equal access to health care for all. But unsurprisingly, not everyone have the same ability to receive health care due to things like socioeconomic status, race, gender, or even sexual orientation. Indeed, LGBT people often have less access to health care than their non-LGBT counterparts, most often due to discrimination and stigma [1].

The Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced “the formal designation of sexual and gender minorities (SGMs) as a health disparity population for NIH research.” Read the full announcement here.

What does this mean? That the NIH is officially recognizing that LGBT people have less access to health care and that improved research on LGBT-specific (defined here broadly as sexual and gender minorities) health issues is essential to improved health care.

The long-overdue announcement was supported by an important report released by the non-partisan National Academies of Science (NAS) in 2011. The report identified gaps in the research on the health of LGBT persons and made recommendations for improving this research that could benefit not just LGBT people, but the health care system overall.

LGBT individuals have unique health challenges that many doctors do not understand or address. For example, certain types of cancer seem to be more prevalent among gay men compared to straight men, which means different cancer screenings would be important for gay men [2].

The new designation by NIMHD will hopefully increase research and knowledge about the health challenges of LGBT people and will hopefully result in improved health care for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Selected References

  1. Hatzenbuehler ML, Bellatorre A, Lee Y, Finch BK, Muennig P, Fiscella K. Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations. Social science & medicine. 2014;103:33-41. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.06.005.
  2. Quinn GP, Sanchez JA, Sutton SK, Vadaparampil ST, Nguyen GT, Green BL, et al. Cancer and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) populations. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians. 2015;65(5):384-400. doi: 10.3322/caac.21288.

The Consequences of Childhood Abuse Last Until Adulthood: What are the Implications for Society?

(© Derek Simon 2015)
(© Derek Simon 2015)

One of the great questions in the addiction field is why do some people become full-blown addicts while other people can use drugs occasionally without progressing to anything more serious? One part the answer definitely has to do with the drug itself. For example, heroin causes a more intensely pleasurable high than cocaine and people that try heroin are more likely to become addicted to it than cocaine. But that’s not the whole story.

I’ve written previously about how a negative, stressful environment can have long-lasting negative impacts on the development of a child’s brain (also known as early-life stress of ELS). ELS such as childhood abuse (physical or sexual) and neglect can increase the risk for a whole host of problems as an adult such as depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and of course drug and alcohol abuse. There’s even a risk for more physical ailments like obesity, migraines, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more.

Childhood abuse/neglect = psychological and physical problems as an adult.

Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).
Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).

This idea doesn’t sound too controversial but believe it or not, the idea that a bad or stressful situation as a child would do anything to you as an adult was laughed away as not possible. It’s only within the last decade or so that a wealth of research has supported this idea that ELS can physically change the brain and that these changes can last through the abused child’s entire life.

This recent review paper (published in the journal Neuron) is an excellent, albeit technical, summary of dozens research papers done on this subject and the underlying biology behind their findings.

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 title

I especially love the quotes the author included at the beginning of the article:

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 quotes

And even more recently, yet another research paper has come out that highlights how important childhood is for the development of the brain and how a stressful childhood environment can impact the function of a person as an adult.

Childhood abuse paper 2016

This most recent report, published in the journal Neuropscyhopharmacology concludes that early childhood abuse affects male and females differently. That is to say that the physical changes that occur in the brain are distinct for men and women who were abused as children.

Studies like this one are done by examining the brains of adults who were abused as kids and then comparing the activity or structure of different parts of the brain to the brains of adults who were not abused. The general technique of examining the structure or activity of the brain in a living human being is called neuroimaging and includes a range of techniques such as MRI, PET, fMRI, and others. (I’ve written about some of these techniques before. In fact, the development of better methods to image the brain is a huge are of research in the neuroscience field).

However, this study did not examine behavioral differences in the subjects, but as I said above, a great number of many other studies have looked at the psychological consequences of ELS. But this paper is really primarily interested in the gender differences in the brains of adults that have been abused as kids.

*Note: the following discussion is entirely my own and is not mentioned or alluded to by the author’s of this study at all.

This work—and the many studies that preceded it—has important implications because as a society, we have to realize that part of our personality/intelligence/character/etc. is determined by our genetics while the other part totally depends on the environment we are born into. I don’t want to extrapolate too much but the idea that childhood abuse can increase the risk of psychological problems as an adult also supports the broader notion that a great deal of a person’s success is determined by entirely random circumstances.

The_ACE_Pyramid
The Adverse Consequences Pyramid perfectly illustrates how ELS/abuse/neglect (the bottom of the pyramid) leads to much greater problems in later life. (wikimedia.org).

The science shows that a child born into a household rife with abuse will have more chance of suffering from a psychological problem (such as addiction) as an adult than someone who was born into a more stable life. The psychological problem could hurt that person’s ability to study in school or to hold down a job. And the tragic irony, of course, is that no child gets to choose the conditions under which they are born. A child, born completely without a choice of any kind over whether or not he or she will be abused, can still suffer the consequences of it (and blame for it) as an adult.

As a society, we often always blame a person’s failures as brought on by his or her own personal failings, but what if a person’s childhood plays an important role in why that person might have failed? How, as a society, do we incorporate this information into the idea of ourselves as having complete control over our minds and our destinies, when we very clearly do not? As an adult, how much of a person’s personality is really “their own problem” when research like this clearly show that ELS impacts a person well after the abuse has ended?

If the environment a child is born into has a tangible, physical effect on how the brain functions as an adult, than this problem is more than a social or an economic one: this is a matter of public health. Studies that support findings such as these provide empirical significance for public policy and public services for child care such as universal pre-K, increased availability of daycare, health insurance/medical access for children, increased and equitable funding for all public schools regardless of the economic situation of the district that school happens to be located in, etc.

One of our goals as a society (if indeed we believe ourselves to be a functioning society…the success of Donald Trump’s candidacy raises some serious doubts…but I digress) is the improvement of the lives of ALL of our citizens and securing the prosperity of the society for future generations. Reducing childhood poverty and abuse quite literally could help secure the future generations themselves and improve the ability of any child to grow up to become a successful and productive adult.

Public programs are essential because the unfortunate reality for many people born into poverty is that they must work all the time at low paying jobs in order to simply survive and may not be able to give their children all the advantages of a wealthier family. And this is where government and public policy step in, to correct the imbalances and unfairness inherent to the randomness of life and level the playing field for all peoples. Of course, the specific programs and policies to reduce childhood poverty and abuse would need to be evaluated empirically themselves to guarantee an important improvement in development of the brain and health of the child when he/she grows up.

And this is the real power of neuroscience and basic scientific research papers like this one. Research into how our brains operate in real-life situations reveal a side of our minds and our personalities that we never may have considered before and the huge implications this can have for society. The brain is a complex machine and just like other machines it can be broken.

Of course, we shouldn’t extrapolate too much and say that, for example, a drug addict who was abused as a child is not responsible for anything they’ve ever done in between. But is important to recognize all the mitigating factors at play in a person’s success and simply dismiss someone’s problems as “their own personal responsibility.” As a neuroscientist, I might argue that that phrase and the issues behind it are way more nuanced than the how certain politicians like to use it.

Special endnote Due to some recent shifts in my career, Dr. Simon Says Science will be expanding the content that I write about. Addiction and neuroscience will still be prominently featured but I plan to delve into a variety of other topics that I find interesting and sharing opinions that I think are important. I hope you will enjoy the changes! Thanks very much!

 

CDC Reports Zika Virus Causes Microcephaly

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (commons.wikimedia.org)
Aedes aegypti mosquitoes (commons.wikimedia.org)

A few weeks ago I wrote a post All About Zika virus epidemic. The million-dollar question is does Zika cause microcephaly (or abnormally small heads and severe brain damage) in the fetus if a pregnant woman is infected with virus? At the time I wrote my first post, the evidence strongly suggested that it did but scientists were reluctant to declare a direct causal relationship.

Earlier this month, scientists at the CDC published in the New England Journal of Medicine that there is now enough evidence to confirm that:

Yes, Zika virus does cause microcephaly.

The team from the CDC examined all the available reports and studies on the Zika virus and microcephaly and did a systematic analysis of all the evidence using a strict set of criteria to determine causality.

Read the full study.

While no one report or piece of evidence is the “smoking gun” all of the pieces put together reveal the truth. Just like only when all the pieces of a puzzle are fit together is the whole picture clear.

This conclusion is extremely important because the risks for pregnant women are very real. The CDC has released important information for pregnant women or women who intend to become pregnant in areas were Aedes mosquitoes (Zika carrying mosquitoes) are prevalent.

Read the CDC’s Information for Pregnant Women.

It’s important to remember that while Zika does cause microcephaly is does not cause it in 100% of pregnancies. Some pregnant women bitten by Zika will have no problems with the developing fetus. One thing we still don’t know is what is the risk that the Zika will cause microcephaly and who are the mothers most in danger of this happening?

As more information is gathered on this epidemic and more scientific studies published, the more we will learn about how to fight it.