Bigger U.S. Health Crisis: Ebola or Addiction?

One U.S. death from Ebola and every media outlet around makes it their lead story, treating it as if it's a health crisis of monumental proportions. Meanwhile, nearly 42,000 people die in this countryas a result of drug overdoses.
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pills spilling from container
pills spilling from container

Of all the pieces I've written about addiction over the years, this one is probably going to be the most controversial. Nevertheless, I have to write it because media reports are constantly reminding me of the skewed thinking going on in the United States right now. The subject of that skewed thinking? Ebola.

There's no denying that Ebola virus is a horrible and deadly disease. First identified as occurring in humans in Africa in 1976, Ebola has been in the forefront of the news this year as outbreaks have hit several countries in Africa.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first announcement about an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea in late March of this year. Since then, thousands of people -- mostly in Africa -- have contracted the disease. Thousands have also died. As of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the overall number of dead across West Africa has exceeded 4,500. Many believe the actual number of deaths may even be higher.

While Ebola is certainly not something to be taken lightly, the number of people who have died from the virus on U.S. soil stands at one. And that one person, 42-year-old Thomas Duncan, was infected while he was in Liberia.

Despite there being just one Ebola-related death in our country, there seems to be a bit of hysteria and overkill going on here. From President Obama appointing Ron Klain as our "Ebola Czar" to the Defense Department preparing a 30-member "quick response medical team" to assist health care workers in case Ebola spreads in the U.S.


One person has died from Ebola in this country and our response would lead you to believe that The Walking Dead was just days away from becoming reality. I'm all for being prepared, but could we possibly be overreacting just a little bit?

Now, let's look at some facts and figures revolving around what I believe to be the biggest health crisis in the United States: addiction.

  • Every day in the United States, 114 people die as a result of drug overdose, and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments (ED) for the misuse or abuse of drugs.
  • Drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2012. Among people 25 to 64 years old, drug overdose caused more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes.
  • Drug overdose death rates have been rising steadily since 1992 with a 117 percent increase from 1999 to 2012 alone.
  • In 2012, 33,175 (79.9 percent) of the 41,502 drug overdose deaths in the United States were unintentional.
  • In 2011, drug misuse and abuse caused about 2.5 million emergency department (ED) visits. Of these, more than 1.4 million ED visits were related to pharmaceuticals.
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths are caused by drugs.
  • In 2012, of the 41,502 drug overdose deaths in the United States, 22,114 (53 percent) were related to pharmaceuticals.

If you read those figures and aren't absolutely staggered by them, you'd better check your pulse. Our country is in the midst of a substance abuse pandemic. And we need to address it.

One U.S. death from Ebola and every media outlet around makes it their lead story, treating it as if it's a health crisis of monumental proportions. Meanwhile, nearly 42,000 people die in this country every year as a result of drug overdoses. Yet we struggle to provide adequate treatment to those who suffer from addiction; passing legislation to enact 911/Good Samaritan Laws, or to allow the over-the-counter sale of Naloxone -- a medication used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose -- is like pulling teeth; and addiction continues to be stigmatized.

For the most part, we don't even bother to educate our young people about the dangers of drugs and addiction. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, "most kids are no longer receiving drug prevention messages in schools."

What exactly is it going to take for America to wake up and take the addiction problem by the horns? How many more people have to die before substance abuse becomes a health crisis worthy of "Ebola-like" action? Do we start taking overdose deaths seriously when they reach 50,000 a year? Or 75,000? How about 100,000?

My heart goes out to anyone who has suffered with Ebola and to any family who has lost someone to that disease. But as the father of a son in long-term recovery from drug addiction, I work every single day to advocate for recovery and help other parents whose children are in the throes of addiction. Over the last several years I have met too many parents who have lost their children to substance abuse.

There but for the grace of God, go I.

I know a large number of people who read this piece will likely dismiss it. They'll say things like, "Addiction is a choice" or "Only bad people use drugs." And to those people I politely say, "Bullshit." Addiction is a brain disease that does not discriminate, and it can happen to anyone -- including you or your loved one.

When health officials in this country are satisfied that our Ebola "crisis" is under control, they need to take off their hazmat suits and start addressing addiction with the same intensity. It's a disease too many people are actually dying from.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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