Imagine there were a cancer drug covered by insurance that cut the rate of fatalities by twice as much as any other form of treatment, but most doctors were not allowed to prescribe it, most patients were not fully informed of its effectiveness and the medical establishment did not make it a standard treatment.

Imagine that many professionals responsible for treating the cancer, as well as friends and families of those with the disease, had a bias against the drug.

Now imagine that the preferred alternative treatment for that deadly cancer were a regimen of prayer, fellowship, behavior modification and group therapy.

This sounds like an insane way to treat an illness for which a drug regimen works far better. But that’s exactly what is happening with opioid addiction, which we call a deadly disease but too often treat like a sinful behavior.

Opioid addiction is believed to have killed about 50,000 people in the United States in 2017. It has become the leading cause of death for people younger than 50 in the nation. And while recent national and local numbers show that the epidemic finally may have begun to recede a bit, opioid addiction will be among our most significant problems for many years.

Study after study has shown that the most effective treatment for opioid addiction is medication-assisted treatment, which consists of two different protocols. In one, addicts are treated with methadone or buprenorphine, which imitate certain aspects of opioids like heroin or fentanyl long enough to prevent the feelings of withdrawal and cravings. In the other, they are treated with naloxone, which makes users incapable of getting high from opioids by blocking their effects.

However, the most common treatment for opioid addiction is rooted in the 12-step programs developed to treat alcoholism, which involve meetings, the sponsorship and guidance of recovered addicts, the acceptance of a “higher power” and a moral code of conduct. Such 12-step programs can be very helpful to those opioid addicts who are open to them in their overall recovery. But used alone, they are ineffective compared with medication, and for many, the programs do not work at all.

A study released last week looked at outcomes for more than 17,000 Massachusetts adults who survived overdoses between 2012 and 2014. It found that the 11 percent of patients who received methadone treatment had 59 percent lower mortality over the following year than those who had no medication. The 17 percent given buprenorphine had a 38 percent lower mortality rate.

This wasn’t a new finding, yet experts estimate that less than 30 percent of opioid addicts in the United States who have overdosed or tried to quit received medication-assisted treatment. In comparison, 80 percent of opioid addicts in Switzerland and 70 percent of them in France get drug therapy, and overdose deaths have plummeted.

Editorial by Newsday

©2018 Newsday

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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