Health

Evolving opioid epidemic poses challenge for public health officials

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Rahul Gupta, commissioner and state health officer in West Virginia, and Nora Volkow of the National Institute on Drug Abuse talk with POLITICO Pro executive editor of health care Joanne Kenen at the Pro Summit on Tuesday. | Rod Lamkey Jr./POLITICO

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The opioid epidemic is morphing into something new and possibly even more dangerous as cocaine and marijuana are increasingly laced with powerful synthetic opioids, health officials and experts said at Tuesday’s POLITICO Pro Summit.

That rapid shift is making it hard for federal and state officials to gain a handle on a crisis that is killing an estimated 115 Americans each day.

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“Many of the overdoses are due to multiple drugs,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said Tuesday. “Right now we are addressing the problem of opioids but we need to address the problem of drugs.”

Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director at the CDC, said she was struck by how quickly fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, was changing. She likened it to a virus that mutates and becomes a pandemic.

“We have all these fentanyl analogues,” Schuchat said. “So our enemy is changing so quickly. … It’s really difficult to get ahead of it.”

Particularly concerning is the possibility that drug dealers may be unknowingly hooking customers on opioids to expand their business, said Jeanmarie Perrone, director of medical toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

“That panics me even more,” she said.

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