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Law Enforcement And Education Combine Efforts To Fight Addiction In Western Pennsylvania

University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health Science is entering the battle against the nationwide opioid epidemic.

Donald Burke, dean of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, said opioids affect every major demographic group in the country. He is working to compile data on the epidemic from several different sources.

“These are not easy pieces of data to get and put all together,” Burke said. “So the first thing we’re trying to do is help pull all the data together to get a consistent picture that allows us to understand the moving parts of the epidemic.”

David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania, said solving this problem requires marrying public health to public safety.

“It just struck me that we were being too narrow in how we approached the problem … and that we had to get current with the problem,” Hickton said.

He said we need to find ways to intervene earlier so we can catch up with the problem as opposed to chasing it. Everyone has a part in how we got to where we are, Hickton said, from the drug companies that market the drugs, to the doctors that overprescribe them, to the patients who believe they are entitled to be free from pain.

“We have such a prolific amount of pills in the community now,” Hickton said. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population and we consume 99 percent of these pills.”

Burke said students entering health professions need to understand how to approach patients dealing with pain. Other countries use significantly less opioids. Burke estimated that the U.S. could still provide compassionate care while only prescribing about 20 percent of its current amount of drugs.

The CDC gave 12 suggestions to doctors last month including starting patients with lower doses and not doubling up on drugs.

“It’s tough once somebody’s already on the opioids, but when you got somebody who’s just starting there are a lot of smart things you can do to make sure they don’t get addicted,” Burke said.

In the near future, Hickton said informing the community will improve the situation, but they need better data to create medium and long-term goals.

“We just don’t have enough data for me to do my job.” Hickton said. “We can’t really start to solve the problem unless we know about every overdose.”

With that data, Hickton said they can start to apply the same tactics to the epidemic that they would to a measles outbreak. He added that an increase in treatment capacity is necessary.

“We could create a treatment mecca here. We could lead the country, lead the world in dealing with this problem,” Hickton said.

Burke said society needs to recognize that addiction is an illness — not a crime — in order to make progress, including reducing the shame and stigma that surround drug abuse.

“When a society views this as a person who doesn’t want to be an addict and it is a disease, then we can make available the treatments,” Burke said.

He said working with law enforcement looks like the best approach and Hickton agrees.

“We’re going to clean up western Pennsylvania in a real and meaningful way,” Hickton said. “As opposed to playing this sort of Whack-a-Mole that we play right now where we tamp down a part of the problem and it pops up elsewhere.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.