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Opioid Deaths May Be Starting To Plateau, HHS Chief Says

Nine-year-old Gabriella Santamaria holds up a picture of her uncle Stephen who died from a heroin overdose during a 2017 candlelight vigil for victims of drug addiction in Staten Island.

The American opioid crisis is far from over, but early data indicate the number of deaths are beginning to level off, according to Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, citing "encouraging" results in overdose trends.

In a speech on Tuesday at a Milken Institute health summit, Azar walked through statistics suggesting deaths were plateauing and he highlighted efforts he says may be turning the tide in the drug epidemic.

In 2017, the number of Americans dying from opioid overdoses rose to 72,000 from 64,000 the previous year. However, according to new provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control, the numbers stopped rising toward the end of 2017, a trend that has continued into the beginning of this year.

It is "finally bending in the right direction," Azar said.

He added that the death toll flattening out is "hardly a victory," especially at such high levels. Current government statistics show that opioids kill over 115 Americans each day.

"We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning," he said.

Azar, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist and drug company executive, said the Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services has prevented addiction by promoting evidence-based pain management and supporting treatment and recovery services.

"Simply put, America has prescribed, and still prescribes, a stunning amount of potentially addictive pain medications," he said.

The push to fight the epidemic of opioid overdoses has been one of the few large-scale bipartisian efforts in recent years in an otherwise politically polarized nation.

President Barack Obama expanded treatment options for opioid users and lobbied Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the epidemic.

On Wednesday, President Trump is expected to sign a bill recently passed by Congress that expands Medicaid opioid treatment programs and workforce training initiatives, and supports FDA research to find new options for non-opioid pain relief.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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