One step forward, another step back. On the good-news front, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently clarified its guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain, acknowledging that the rigid interpretation of the 2016 policy has done more harm than good. Not only were chronic pain sufferers denied desperately needed medication, with a startling number turning to suicide, but also the opioid overdose death toll was virtually unaffected and, in fact, continued to climb.
I am cautiously optimistic that this revised policy will end the unnecessary suffering, and that the media will stop emphasizing prescription drugs as the culprit in the overdose epidemic.
But just as there is hope for progress on this front, media coverage of other harmful myths continues.
In spite of the frightening stories of police officers overdosing from exposure to fentanyl, it is not possible to overdose on fentanyl by touching it. In each of the stories that have appeared in the last few months, information presented was not thorough nor was it fact-checked, yet the paranoia generated threatens policies that will make a difference. By suggesting that it’s dangerous to help people who use drugs, cautionary steps currently under consideration will slow response time in a crisis, and divert substantial resources from needed reforms.
Legislation has been introduced at the federal level that would provide law enforcement agencies with chemical screening devices, and the technological training required, to protect law enforcement officers. Of course we want our officers to be safe, but these expensive measures are based on an egregious myth. And, the people at risk are the drug users!
We've been here before. Years after scientific studies confirmed that HIV was transmitted only by exchange of bodily fluids, there were still many doctors who refused to treat HIV patients and citizens who considered them a threat to society.
Bad media coverage makes the crisis worse, fueling stigma and compromising evidence-based measures that can turn this crisis around.
On a positive note, there is legislation that would end the outdated federal law that restricts access to buprenorphine, the life-saving medication for treating opioid use disorder. Let's pray for its passage.