A disease that requires medications

Opioid health risk and medical crisis with a prescription painkiller addiction epidemic concept as a group of people running away from a dangerous falling bridge of pills as a medicine addict problem with 3D illustration elements.

I remember standing on my tippy toes to be eye to eye with the kitchen counter, trying my best not to spill as I poured the orange juice into the glass. Something about the acidity would settle my mom’s stomach, slightly easing her wrenching symptoms of heroin withdrawal—something akin to the stomach flu mixed with food poisoning, but a hundred times worse.

My mother was one of the millions of people who suffer from the disease of addiction in this country. In the decades since my childhood, we have made great strides in treatment: we are now fortunate to count buprenorphine, methadone, and extended-release naltrexone in our toolkit to effectively treat opioid use disorders. I can’t help but wonder how my mother’s life might have been different, how my childhood might have been different, if she had had access to the treatments now available.

Medication Assisted Treatment can be lifesaving, and must be made more widely available, as Congress’ bipartisan budget and Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) prioritize. The medications currently available do not work for everyone though, and we must make developing new and innovative approaches to treatment a top public health priority. Medication side-effects, both physical and emotional, and the logistics of accessing treatment, can be significant barriers to patients as they desperately try to rebuild their lives and find recovery.

Due to the stigma of this disease, we tend to write off patients who are struggling, dismiss their challenges as a lack of motivation. In no other disease space do we do this: when a diabetes patient is experiencing challenges with their insulin, or when a cardiac patient is having trouble with their blood pressure medication, we readily provide alternate therapies.

We need more medications and better treatments for the disease of addiction. We don’t have enough medication options for alcohol use disorder, and 15 million people today are struggling with alcohol addiction. We don’t have a single medication for methamphetamine use disorder nor one for cocaine use disorder, though we’re seeing alarming increases in overdose deaths due to cocaine, particularly among our African American patient population. Like any other disease, our patients deserve medical breakthroughs, new medicines, advancements in science, and research.

Each day, we lose 174 people to drug overdoses. That’s the equivalent of nearly three sold-out 747s every week, seven if we include alcohol-related deaths. These are our mothers, fathers, children, friends, and neighbors, their lives cut short and lost to this disease. As a nation, we can no longer afford to continue to treat addiction as a moral failing, instead of like the medical condition science has proven it to be. We must take the lessons learned from the treatment of other chronic diseases and apply them to the disease of addiction, with the urgency this epidemic requires.

To accomplish this, the Addiction Policy Forum is proud to be raising awareness of the efforts of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse as they work to develop patient-focused treatments for opioid use disorders. We must work with policymakers, white lab coats, patients, and families on the frontline of this devastating disease to better understand patients’ experiences with currently available treatments and to speed the development of new medications. Opportunities like this one— fighting stigma with science and elevating the voices of the human beings directly impacted by addiction— are why I have dedicated my life to this field. Together, we can solve this.