The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a Buckhead event that the stigma against addiction is one of the biggest threats to combating the opioid epidemic, where he also discussed the flu and other public health threats.
“Even the word ‘addict’ is stigmatizing,” Robert Redfield, the director of Atlanta-based global health organization, said at the Oct. 11 Buckhead Business Association breakfast meeting.
Opioids are a class of addictive, often easily lethal drugs that include opium and morphine as well as substances with similar effects. National controversy has raged over opioids available as prescription pills, such as oxycodone, while illegal varieties such as heroin and fentanyl now kill the most people through overdoses, nationwide and in local communities.
Redfield, who was appointed to the position in March, called the opioid epidemic “the public health crisis of our time.”
“One of the biggest challenges in the opioid outbreak is that stigma becomes the enemy of public health,” Redfield said.
He said people should work to reduce the stigma associated with addictions so those affected are more likely to seek help.
“When you relapse from cancer, we don’t give you a hard time,” he said. “It’s a medical condition, not a moral failure,” he said of opioid addiction.
Redfield said it can be easy to not see the signs of addiction, even among family members. One of his three children almost died due to an opioid use, he said.
He said it was a “tremendous learning experience” in how to help someone overcome an addiction.
“Recovery is possible. It needs to be the rule, not the exception,” he said.
He compared the stigmatizing qualities of the opioid epidemic to the HIV/AIDS outbreak.
“If the AIDS epidemic didn’t help you re-evaluate how you may be inadvertently stigmatizing people, not intentionally, the opioid epidemic ought to wake us all up,” he said.
But progress with the spread of AIDS is also a sign of hope for a breakthrough in treatment for opioid addiction, he said.
“Very similar to the AIDS epidemic, science will solve it,” he said.
Science has come a long way on AIDS treatments, with medicine now able to prevent transmission or acquisition of the disease, he said.
Redfield has been researching HIV/AIDS for decades, including through partnerships with abstinence-promoting organizations, which became part of the controversy surrounding his appointment by President Donald Trump in March this year. Redfield’s appointment also received criticism for an unusually high salary initially offered, but was later lowered.
Redfield did not take press questions, but BBA members did ask questions, including about the HIV/AIDS epidemic’s affect on Fulton County and how to convince people to get a flu shot.
Like other diseases, HIV/AIDS still spreads despite the treatments and preventive medicine available, he said. Fulton County is among the top counties in the country for new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, Redfield said
“I do think there’s an opportunity to revisit how we can be more aggressive here,” he said of the county. “There still is a greater stigma of the AIDS epidemic in the South, and we need to take that on.”
In a similar way, tens of thousands of Americans die each year despite the availability of seasonal vaccines are available. Over 80,000 Americans died from the flu last year, most of whom were not vaccinated, Redfield said.
“There’s no reason for us to lose 1 million Americans over the next decade from the flu,” he said.
Each season stories are typically spread about the people who got the flu despite being vaccinated, but those people are still much less likely to have severe reactions to the disease or to spread it to others, he said.
“What the narrative should be is: How well does the vaccine keep you from dying from the flu?” Redfield said.
He said the globe is at the same risk today as it was when a pandemic of flu began in the early 1918 and killed millions.
“When people ask me what keeps me up at night, I will tell you is pandemic flu,” he said.
One of the best ways to prevent a pandemic flu is to properly respond to seasonal flu by getting vaccinated, Redfield said.
“I can’t plead enough for people to get vaccinated,” he said.
The business community and private sector is also important in reducing disease spread and creating cures, such as Rotary International’s goal on ending polio. Due in part to Rotary’s work, polio cases have reduced drastically from thousands to a handful of cases a year, he said.
“We are on the verge of eliminating polio. Why? Obviously because of the vaccinations, but, more importantly, because a group of individuals had the ability to see the possible,” he said.
Three other trends threatening public health are the increased amount of pathogens spread through insects, chronic illnesses caused by obesity and tobacco use, and antibiotic resistance, he said.