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US Officials Call for Greater Use of Medications to Treat Drug Abuse

FILE - Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 2005.
More than 15 million people around the world have substance abuse issues, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, health officials say the abuse of prescription drugs is worsening and that deaths from prescribed painkillers have increased to more than 16,000 a year. They are calling for greater use of inexpensive and effective medications to treat what they are calling the epidemic of opioid addiction.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington say these life-saving drug therapies are underutilized because of the widespread misperception within the medical community that drug abuse medications replace one addiction with another.

In commentary published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine, National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow said the medications, when used properly, are safe and can improve lives as well as reduce the risk of overdose.

In addition to increasing the use of therapeutic drugs, the commentary said behaviorial counseling can help reduce drug dependence, while data-driven monitoring programs can track the progress of efforts aimed at stemming the over-prescription of opioid drugs.

Therapeutic drugs to treat prescription drug abuse include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Methadone has for years been widely administered at heroin clinics in the U.S.; buprenorphine can be prescribed by qualifying doctors, and naltrexone is now available in once-a-month, long-acting injectable form.

Naltrexone in particular can block the deadly effects of opioids when administered at the first signs of an overdose.

In addition to Volkow, the commentary was authored by anti-drug abuse leaders at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, among others.