On the front lines in the fight against opioid abuse in the US

Global Business

Despite billions of dollars being spent on federal and state programs and medical research to fight opioid abuse, it doesn’t always translate into grassroots action.

CGTN’s Dan Williams looks at what’s happening on the front lines of the fight in the United States.

On a cold Chicago afternoon, a queue forms outside a van in the Woodlawn area on the south side of the city.

The Chicago Recovery Alliance is a street-based, harm reduction program that has been in operation since 1992. Each day, the van appears at the same place at the same time, allowing drug users the chance to pick up new clean needles, condoms, snorting kits and crack pipes. The aim of the program, to reduce drug-related harm.

This is also now the frontline of the opioid epidemic. I meet Steve, an opioids user. He’s still coming to terms with the death of a friend who had overdosed after taking the synthetic opioid fentanyl the day before.

“She took a chance,” said Steve, “shot the bag of dope and she started changing, her health started changing. She passed out. They tried to revive her but with the fentanyl, she wouldn’t come back.”

The U.S. fight against the opioid crisis has drawn bipartisan support from politicians, with greater funds and programs in place to combat the epidemic. Around 48-thousand people lost their lives to opioids in the United States in 2017. Synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, accounted for 60 percent of the fatal overdoses.

In order to combat the issue of fentanyl, the van hands out fentanyl test strips, allowing the user the chance to check for their drugs before using. Naloxone kits are also provided. Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose but the kits can be expensive and inaccessible elsewhere.

Greg Scott is the Executive Director of Chicago recovery Alliance said Naloxone availability is crucial to the fight.

“I absolutely think that is one of the key weapons in the arsenal. There is a great deal of research that demonstrates that take-home Naloxone makes a huge difference in preventing overdose deaths,” said Scott.

Cheryl Hull has worked with the alliance for almost 26 years. She said the resources available to help users is simply not enough.

“There’s no beds for people to go and get treatment. People want to go and get treatment. But when you tell somebody, you are going to have to wait a month, you lose them.”

In the neighboring U.S. state of Iowa, opioid-related deaths declined by 33 percent last year. But Sarah Ziegenhorn, executive director of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, questions whether the decline is because of any new policy shift.

“Is it really true that fewer people are dying because there are interventions that are helping people improve their health? Or is it the fact that there are fewer people left available who are using drugs who can die,” she asks.

Ziegenhorn is also surprised the opioid issue has not been more prominent ahead of next year’s U.S. presidential election.

“For some reason, the issue does not seem to be at the forefront of the election. I think that even though both political parties have addressed some attention to the crisis, a significant amount more will be needed in terms of making real commitments that will lead to real change.”

The U.S. opioid crisis may have been in the political spotlight for the last couple of years. But it would appear, from those on the frontline, it’s still not enough.

Andrew Kessler on the US fight against the opioid crisis

CGTN’s Toni Waterman spoke to Andrew Kessler, principal of Slingshot Solutions, about the U.S. fight against the opioid epidemic