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opioid crisis
January 16, 2019

In a court filing released Tuesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey asserts that the former president of Purdue Pharma, Richard Sackler, knew in the early 2000s that his company's powerful opioid painkiller, OxyContin, was being abused, but still pushed it on doctors and tried to blame users for becoming addicted.

"We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible," Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, wrote in a 2001 email. "They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals." This was one of several internal documents cited in the court filing, The New York Times reports, which also alleges that Sackler told sales representatives they needed to urge doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of OxyContin, because Purdue made the most money off of those pills.

In June, Healey sued eight members of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, and several directors and executives, accusing them of misleading doctors and patients about the risks of taking OxyContin. Purdue Pharma has long said the Sackler family was not involved in marketing the drug, which came on the market in 1996. Doctors were told that it was next to impossible for people to abuse the painkiller; since then, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from OxyContin overdoses.

The court filing says the Sackler family also knew that Purdue Pharma was aware early on that OxyContin was being abused by some users and sold on the street, but never told authorities. Purdue Pharma said in a statement the court filing is "littered with biases and inaccurate characterizations." The Sacklers are extremely wealthy, with OxyContin sales helping boost their bank accounts, and involved in philanthropy. With this latest court filing, it's expected that many institutions will be urged to decline or give back their gifts, the Times reports. Read the entire complaint against Purdue Pharma at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

January 13, 2019

One person in Chico, California, was killed and 12 more hospitalized, four of them in critical condition, after a mass overdose in which police say the victims likely ingested the opioid fentanyl.

Officers were called to a Chico home Saturday, and "found multiple individuals in what appeared to be life-threatening overdose conditions," said Michael O'Brien, Chico's police chief. They administered CPR and naxalone, an opioid antidote. "Certainly there’s potential for additional fatalities," O'Brien said. "I want to emphasize that."

Two of the responding officers were "potentially exposed" to the fentanyl and also received treatment at the hospital, though it was not immediately clear how the exposure occurred. Bonnie Kristian

June 25, 2018

The opioid crisis has been steadily growing more dire for years, and new evidence has surfaced suggesting there are unexpected consequences even to treating the harmful addiction epidemic. CNN reported Monday that more and more young children are being unintentionally exposed to buprenorphine, a drug commonly used to treat opioid addiction.

Between 2007 and 2016, over 11,000 calls were made to U.S. poison control centers regarding children's exposure to the drug, a study published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday revealed. Eighty-six percent of those calls were about children under 6 years old.

Buprenorphine is "never prescribed" for children that young, and poses "a significant risk" to them, said Henry Spiller, one of the authors of the study. While 89 percent of the cases in the study concerned unintentional exposure, Spiller notes that intentional use is especially common among adolescents, with the intent of intoxication or even suicide.

The rate of exposure to buprenorphine almost doubled over the course of the study. With an increasing number of people misusing prescription opioids or otherwise battling addiction, misuse of treatment drugs like buprenorphine is likely to rise even more in the coming years.

The study shows that even the most well-intentioned methods for curbing the opioid epidemic can be harmful to "those who are most vulnerable," said Dr. Jason Kane, an associate professor of pediatrics and critical care with the University of Chicago. Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

May 24, 2018

The nation's opioid crisis isn't limited to the landbound.

Scientists near Seattle, Washington, found that some marine creatures have absorbed drugs that end up in the waters due to human drug use, KIRO News reported Thursday.

When looking for water contamination, scientists found that mussels in the Puget Sound tested positive for oxycodone and other chemicals. Sealife can get contaminated when humans ingest opioids, because people later excrete trace amounts of drugs, which end up in wastewater. The wastewater is cleaned, but not all drugs can be filtered out.

“It's telling me there's a lot of people taking oxycodone in the Puget Sound area,” one researcher told KIRO.

Researchers found that mussels in multiple locations had absorbed not only opioids, but also antibiotics and other prescription drugs. Washington officials said that the contamination shouldn't make it unsafe to eat mussels, since shellfish in restaurants are coming from different areas. Read more at KIRO News. Summer Meza

March 19, 2018

President Trump pushed his proposed border wall as a method to combat the national opioid crisis in a speech in New Hampshire on Monday.

"Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border," said Trump. "Eventually the Democrats will agree with us, and we'll build the wall to keep the damn drugs out."

His call for additional border security elicited a standing ovation from the audience, who cheered and chanted in support of a wall. Attendees also applauded the president's pledge to deploy the death penalty for drug dealers, whom he called "terrible people."

In his remarks, Trump additionally slammed sanctuary cities, which shield some immigrants from deportation by allowing local authorities to decline to cooperate with federal immigration officers. The president said that removing sanctuary policies was crucial to stopping the opioid crisis, saying that they "shield dangerous criminals" who are responsible for drug dealing. Other strategies mentioned were "commercials" to deter children from trying drugs and battling pharmaceutical companies who push to overprescribe pain medications.

Watch Trump's comments on the border wall below, via Fox News. Summer Meza

February 6, 2018

The Trump administration is sparking concerns over just how seriously it is taking the opioids crisis as experts at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) are apparently being pushed aside in favor of the leadership of inexperienced political appointees, Politico reports. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is overseeing the administration's efforts to combat the crisis, although her team does not have a permanent director and its top appointee for months was a 24-year-old former Trump campaign staffer. The acting director of the ONDCP, who has served in the office for decades, has reportedly not been invited to attend any of the meetings between Conway and her team.

"I haven't talked to Kellyanne at all and I'm from the worst state for this," added Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Regina LaBelle, who served as the ONDCP's chief of staff under former President Obama, said: "I don't know what the agency is doing. I really don't. They aren't at the level of visibility you'd think they'd be at by now."

President Trump has been criticized for failing to act in any meaningful way after declaring an opioids emergency last year. "The main response so far has been to call for a border wall and to promise a 'just say no' campaign," Politico writes, adding that Trump is expected to propose "massive cuts" to the ONDCP next week.

"It's fair to say the ONDCP has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward," stressed a former Trump administration official. An estimated 175 people die a day from opioids; STAT announced last year that opioids could kill nearly 500,000 Americans in the next decade. Read more about concerns sparked by the Trump administration's approach to the crisis at Politico. Jeva Lange

January 17, 2018

Walmart announced Wednesday it is now offering a product that safely destroys all forms of unused opioid drugs, but experts say the item is not necessary.

Walmart's product, DisposeRx, and warm water will turn opioids — including powders, tablets, pills, capsules, liquids, and patches — into a biodegradable gel that cannot be converted back into a usable drug. Walmart said this is the first product of its kind, and with 42,000 Americans dying in 2016 from opioid overdoses, the company wanted to take "an active role in fighting our nation's opioid issue, an issue that has affected so many families and communities across America."

About one-third of medications sold go unused, and it's easy for excess pills to end up in the wrong hands, spreading addiction. But DisposeRx isn't necessary, Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, told NPR. Opioids can just as easily be flushed down the toilet. "The problem is the general public just doesn't know that," he said. "Think about it. Every time someone taking an opioid medication urinates or defecates, it gets into the water supply. So that's not the real problem." Catherine Garcia

December 21, 2017

For the first time since the early 1960s, life expectancy in the United States has fallen for a second year in a row. "I'm not prone to dramatic statements, but I think we should be really alarmed," the chief of the morality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, Robert Anderson, told NPR.

Officials blame the rare U.S. life expectancy decline on opioid overdoses. The epidemic has reached such a state of crisis that STAT estimated earlier this year that the drugs could kill nearly 500,000 Americans in the next decade. In October, President Trump officially declared the crisis to be a national public health emergency and said the government would work on advertising campaigns and research into non-addictive pain management techniques to combat the soaring fatalities.

Americans' life expectancy dropped from 78.9 years to 78.7 years between 2014 and 2015, and from 78.7 years to 78.6 years between 2015 and 2016. "For any individual, that's not a whole lot," Anderson said. "But when you're talking about it in terms of a population, you're talking about a significant number of potential lives that aren't being lived." In 2016, an estimated 42,200 drug overdose deaths were attributed to opioids. In 2015, that number was 33,000.

The last time U.S. life expectancy dropped at all was in 1993, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. "Deaths from alcohol have been rising as well," Princeton University economist Anne Case added to NPR. "So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and whatever is it is that's really wrong is happening nationwide." Jeva Lange

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