At least 932 people in Massachusetts died from an opioid-related overdose in the first nine months of 2017, according to a report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In light of the ongoing opioid epidemic, Boston University’s School of Public Health hosted a discussion with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams to address the issue and possible solutions.
Adams was joined by Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, and the discussion, which was co-sponsored by the BU Institute for Health System Innovation and Policy, was moderated by former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson.
In a phone interview before the event, SPH Dean Sandro Galea said the problem of opioid abuse is difficult to avoid, making it an important subject for the discussion.
“This is an extraordinarily important health issue of our time,” Galea said. “There could be no more important issue in public health at the moment.”
During his opening remarks, Galea compared the ongoing opioid addiction to a plague, criticizing the way in which society perceives it.
“Imagine that there is a plague and imagine that the plague affects everybody in society,” Galea said. “Fortunately, the plague can be cured, but instead of administering the cure, we tell everybody who’s sick with the plague that they are criminals.”
After Galea finished his opening remarks, Adams introduced himself and shared how his family has been affected by substance use.
“My little brother Phillip is in state prison right now, suffering from still untreated substance use disorder,” Adams said. “This has had an effect not just on him, but on our entire family.”
Adams said fighting the opioid epidemic is a challenge that requires the participation of many different aspects of the community in order to succeed.
“Addiction is a chronic disease that requires a coordinated effort [to cure],” Adams said. “We must mount a robust response, but we can’t do it alone.”
During her introduction, Bharel said there were many reasons why so much attention is focused on the opioid epidemic now, but she said two of those reasons are that the epidemic is widespread and devastating, and that much more should have been done to address it in the past.
“We lose almost six individuals a day here in Massachusetts,” Bharel said. “Those are numbers, but behind each one of those numbers is an individual who, up until the time of their death, has come from immense and deep suffering.”
Brenna Cleeland, 27, of Boston, works in the health care industry. She said the opioid epidemic is important to discuss because of the barriers that prevent people from realizing how widespread the issue is.
“Everything I was hearing was very much in line with what I see at work every day and the policies that people are trying to push for,” Cleeland said. “I think it’s just a matter of making more people aware.”
During the moderated conversation portion of the event, Adams and Bharel answered questions asked by Woodson and members of the audience.
One of the questions was asked by Massachusetts State House of Representatives Member Evandro Carvalho of Suffolk County’s 5th district. Carvalho asked the speakers what they think of the supervised injection sites proposed by some Massachusetts lawmakers.
Carvalho asked, “In your medical opinion today, what do we think about that?”
Adams responded and said critical evaluation of such programs must take place in order to determine their efficiency.
“It’s very important that we continue to allow state innovation and allow the decisions about what does and does not happen to occur at the state level,” Adams said. “It’s important that we evaluate them so that then we can go and share the science.”
Several attendees came from medical backgrounds and said they believed acknowledgment of the issues surrounding the opioid epidemic is one of the first steps toward treating it.
Christian Coletta, 24, of Long Island, New York, said he heard about the event and came up to Boston to attend. He said hearing Adams and Bharel speak gave him an eye-opening look into the perspective on the opioid epidemic from the top level of the medical field.
“There’s just so many families that are impacted in one way or the other,” Coletta said. “What I’m hoping is that with more conversation around things like medication-assisted treatment, expanding the number of treatment beds, those kind of things, the conversation will be less stigmatized.”