Immediate Responses to the Opioid Crisis

Civil society organizations call for greater coordination in action to prevent overdose and effectively align with local governments

Opioid Crisis

Opioid Crisis – Marco Verch, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

By Gisela Hansen – Each day, more than 90 Americans die from opioid overdoses. Opioid abuse and addiction, including prescription drugs, heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, constitute a crisis affecting both public health and the economic well-being. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that in the US the financial burden associated with the sole abuse of prescription opioids totals $ 78.5 billion a year. This burden includes the medical costs, loss of productivity, addiction treatment, and costs related to criminal justice interventions.

According to research studies carried out in 2017, it is estimated that:

  • About 21% to 29% of patients who are prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain use them inappropriately1.
  • Between 8% and 12% develop an opioid abuse disorder2.
  • It is estimated that between 4% and 6% of those who use prescribed opioids inappropriately switch to heroin3.
  • About 80% of people using heroin have started abusing prescription opioids3.

Due to the increase in opioid drugs misuse, in neonatal abstinence syndrome, and in the injection-related incidence of infectious diseases, a Public Health Emergency was declared by authorities.

Response of civil society

Beyond the headlines and loud political declarations grassroots professionals intervening directly with bear bore witness of the worsening of the situation. Recent documentaries have captured their day-to-day endeavor against overdose and death.

In Huntington, West Virginia – the so-called ‘city of overdose’ – police officers and Fire Chief Jan Rader say that 90% of their daily activity is dedicated to responding to emergency calls for opioid overdoses. Healthcare professionals say that they often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders due to their having to reanimate the same person up to 4 times a month and to witness numerous fatal overdoses.

Civil society organizations call for greater coordination in action to prevent overdose and effectively align with local governments. In the case of Canada, the organizations involved in the prevention and treatment of addictions have published a manifesto to congratulate the federal government for its rapid action in coordinating with civil society organizations and joining forces to better face the crisis. More particularly, obstacles to treatment access have been reduced and safe injection facilities implemented, within a harm reduction perspective.

Response of the government and the National Institute of Health

The Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a strategy to face the crisis, including five lines of action:

  1. Improve access to treatment and recovery services;
  2. Promote the use of life-saving medication  to reverse opioid drug overdoses;
  3. Promote better knowledge and understanding of the epidemic through observation of public health trends;
  4. Provide support for research on pain and addiction;
  5. Promote safer non-opioid pain management options.

This crisis highlights the need to provide rapid and cautious responses based on the adequate evaluation and optimization of resources. Government and civil society should become united partners in their efforts to alleviate the opioid crisis, while reinforcing prevention and treatment.


1- Vowles KE, McEntee ML, Julnes PS, Frohe T, Ney JP, van der Goes DN. Rates of opioid misuse, abuse, and addiction in chronic pain: a systematic review and data synthesis. Pain. 2015;156(4):569-576. doi:10.1097/01.j.pain.0000460357.01998.f1

2- Carlson RG, Nahhas RW, Martins SS, Daniulaityte R. Predictors of transition to heroin use among initially non-opioid dependent illicit pharmaceutical opioid users: A natural history study. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016;160:127-134. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.12.026.

3- Muhuri PK, Gfroerer JC, Davies MC. Associations of Nonmedical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the United States. CBHSQ Data Rev. August 2013.