By Chris Adams
Dr. Leana Wen has seen the opioid epidemic up close.
As Baltimore’s health commissioner, Wen leads one of the nation’s oldest health departments. She’s also an emergency room doctor.
And it was in her practice of medicine that Wen saw the ravages of the opioid epidemic, shaping her ideas for combatting the problem in Baltimore.
Wen tells the story of a former patient who started using opioids after a sports injury but was unable to find treatment, even as her life spiraled out of control and she moved from prescription opioids to heroin.
“It’s bad experiences like this that drove me into public health,” said Wen. She said that treating addiction as a crime – as it long has been – “is inhumane, is unscientific, and is ineffective.”
Baltimore’s approach is to equip both drug users and those around them in how to prevent overdoses. One program – called “Staying Alive” – has in the past 12 years taught more than 16,000 drug users, drug treatment clients and providers, prison inmates and corrections officers about how to prevent overdoses. According to the city, that has led to more than 200 “reversals” – or lives saved. The program teaches people how to recognize an overdose and how to respond to it, often by using the recovery drug naloxone.
Wen, in fact, has authorized every citizen in Baltimore to get a prescription for naloxone, in hopes that those closest to drug users can intervene in the event of an overdose. More than 8,000 have been trained to use it, and have the antidote to do so.
Baltimore also has a needle-exchange program, and it has documented its efforts dating to 2004, detailing the total number of people trained in response efforts, the number of naloxone kits dispensed and the number of reversals reported.
Wen has testified to Congress about the city’s program and what she calls the “three pillars” of Baltimore’s strategy: preventing deaths from overdoses, increasing access to quality and effective on-demand treatment, and increasing addiction education and awareness to reduce the stigma that comes with addiction.
Other resources from Wen include an article from the journal Health Affairs on policy questions presidential candidates should answer, and a recent article from The Wall Street Journal about the dangerous interaction between opioids and drugs such as Valium.