CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield discussed the parallels between the crises and his plans to combat opioids during a recent interview. 

Robert Redfield has only been the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) since March, but in that time he has made his stance on the opioid crisis known.

Redfield, 66, tells The Washington Times that the opioid crisis will be worse than the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which he was also involved in fighting. “I would say the opioids-fueled epidemic is clearly already more deadly than the AIDS epidemic ever was,” he told the Times.

According to Redfield, the CDC is working with pharmacies and states to keep up with the opioid epidemic in real time and collect overdose death data as quickly as possible. He says the goal is to release the figures for 2017 in the fall of 2018. 

The most recent data, from 2016, has overdose deaths at 42,000. The Times notes that some researchers predict that the newest data will show that overdose deaths have passed the 48,000 HIV/AIDS deaths in 1995 which was the most fatal year of that epidemic.

Redfield says that when it comes to annual rates, drug overdose deaths have already overtaken those of the HIV/AIDS crisis. “If you look at all overdose deaths, not just opioids deaths, we’re over 60,000 now,” he told the Times.

The number of deaths isn’t the only similarity Redfield sees between the two epidemics. He tells the Times that with both, there have been empathy gaps, meaning people initially saw the diseases as something that happened because of dangerous behavior.

“It’s a medical condition. It’s not a moral choice,” Redfield told the Times. He added that as with the HIV/AIDS crisis, combating the opioid crisis will take new scientific innovations and “public health efforts.”

In June, Redfield told the Wall Street Journal that the CDC would be increasing efforts to fight the opioid crisis. He stated the organization would be developing new guidelines for opioid prescriptions for acute pain, as well as introducing a new system to track emergency department data. 

Redfield also told the Wall Street Journal that he has personal experience with the opioid crisis, as a close family member had struggled with opioid use. “I think part of my understanding of the epidemic has come from seeing it not just as a public-health person and not just as a doctor,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “It is something that has impacted me also at a personal level.”

Redfield also called stigma the “enemy of public health” and stated that it’s vital to find “a path to destigmatize” opioid use.

“We were able to do it to some degree for HIV, and I think pretty successfully, but it’s not over,” he said.

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