A fight we must win

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Our state and our nation are in the throes of an opioid crisis. This stark reality was driven home last week when President Trump declared the epidemic a national public health emergency.

News headlines and public health reports serve as daily, tragic reminders of the 50-state epidemic that claims nearly 100 American lives every day. Just since June of this year, 400 opioid-overdose deaths have been reported in Arizona. Last year, 790 of our neighbors, friends and family members died from an opioid overdose - a 16 percent increase over the previous year and up 74 percent from four years ago, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. An equally eye-opening  Arizona State University Morrison-Cronkite News poll found nearly 60 percent of Arizonans believe opioids are "very easy" or "somewhat easy" to get; 45 percent of Arizonans personally know someone who has taken a prescription painkiller not prescribed to them; and one in seven Arizonans personally know someone who has died from an opioid overdose.

These statistics are among the reasons Governor Doug Ducey has rightly declared a statewide health emergency regarding opioid abuse.

While the non-medical use of narcotics other than heroin, which includes opioids, has been declining nationally among college students in the past decade, from 8.8 percent in 2006 to 3.3 percent in 2015, a national study suggests the declining trend may be ending given a slight uptick in use to 3.8 percent in 2016.

Ensuring our universities provide a positive environment that promotes the health, well-being and overall safety of our student body is an integral part of the Arizona Board of Regents governance process. In 2014, the board convened a student safety task force from which stemmed new recommendations to identify and promote best practices that promote healthy, positive behaviors. Annual health surveys conducted at the universities each year, as well as bolstered communications campaigns, help us advance our drug and alcohol abuse education, prevention and intervention initiatives. Recognizing that students develop patterns of behavior (both good and bad) before they reach our campuses, universities have also enhanced collaborations with local high schools to identify ways to educate high school students to develop effective coping and problem-solving skills to ease their transition to college life.

While we are keenly focused on student safety, university researchers are also developing novel ways to combat the growing national opioid crisis. Here are just a few examples:

  • In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at ASU's Biodesign Institute are developing powerful new analgesics capable of blocking pain to reduce the need for opioids. Through ASU's resources at the Center for Health Information and Research, researchers have the capacity to empirically document opioid prescription patterns among Medicaid reimbursed physicians throughout the state. You can read more about these initiatives here.
  • Northern Arizona University was recently awarded a two-year, $300,000 grant to expand substance-abuse prevention and early-intervention efforts on campus. This funding will allow Campus Health Services to expand universal drug screening and early intervention efforts within the clinic and in the university conduct system. The project also will involve new social marketing efforts and peer-to-peer prevention education to increase awareness of the dangers of prescription drug abuse.
  • University of Arizona researcher Jenny Lo-Ciganic recently received a $100,000 grant to develop ways to help identify patients at risk of prescription opioid abuse. Meanwhile, Alex Sandweiss, a student in the MD-PhD program at the UA College of Medicine, is engaged in award-winning research aimed at developing a non-addictive pain reliever.

These examples provide only a snapshot of the leading-edge and potentially lifesaving work that is conducted every day at Arizona's public universities.

Winning the fight against opioid abuse will be no easy feat. It requires all of us working in concert. That means both the public and private sectors working seamlessly in an effort involving universities, health care and treatment organizations, the business community, elected officials, faith and philanthropic groups and everyday Arizonans of every stripe.

When it comes to opioid abuse, this is a fight we can - and must - win.