US health chief says overdose deaths beginning to level off

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<pThe number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to level off after years of relentless increases driven by the opioid epidemic, healthAlex Azar said Tuesday, cautioning it’s too soon to declare victory.

<p"We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning," Azar said at a health careBarack Obama. More money followed earlier this year under President Donald Trump<pEarlier this month, the CDC released figures — also preliminary — that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths in late 2017 and the first three months of this year. From December to March, those figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.

<pDespite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. Opioids were involved in most of the deaths, killing nearly 48,000 people last year.

<pWhile prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines are on the rise. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin, used as an additive in street drugs.

<pAdvocates for people struggling with addiction said they don't believe the crisis will be quickly or easily resolved. "Even if we are beginning to make a dent in opioid deaths, we still have a really significant problem in this country with addiction, and with the hopelessness and despair so many communities feel," said Chuck Ingoglia, senior vice president at the National Council for Behavioral Health.

<pIn President Barack Obama's last year in office, his administration secured a commitment to expand treatment and Congress provided $1 billion in grants to states. Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Two major funding bills have passed under his watch. While Trump got headlines with his call for using the death penalty against major drug dealers, his administration has built on the treatment approach that Obama favored.

<pThe Medicaid expansion in Obama's Affordable Care Act has also played a critical role, paying for low-income adults to go into treatment. A recent Associated Press analysis showed that states that expanded Medicaid are spending their new opioid grant money from Congress more judiciously, going beyond basics like treatment for people in crisis. Trump tried to repeal the Medicaid expansion, but failed.

<pAdvocates for treatment say that they're pleased that more and more addiction is considered a disease and not a sign of moral weakness. But they say the U.S. has a long way to go build what they call an "infrastructure of care," a system that incorporates prevention, treatment and recovery.

<pIn an interview with The Associated Press this summer, a CDC expert said the overdose death numbers appear to be shifting for the better, but it's too soon to draw firm conclusions.

<pMonth-to-month data show a leveling off in the number of deaths, said Bob Anderson, a senior statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics. However, those numbers are considered preliminary, since death investigations have not been completed in all cases.

<p"It appears at this point that we may have reached a peak and we may start to see a decline," said Anderson. "This reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the '90s."

<pFinal numbers for 2018 won't be available until the end of next year and things could also get worse, not better.

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<pAP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson reported from Seattle.

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<pOn the internet:

<pCDC drug overdose deaths dashboard – https://tinyurl.com/y75vu2dv