The number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to level off after years of relentless increases driven by the opioid epidemic, health secretary Alex Azar said Tuesday, cautioning it’s too soon to declare victory, the Associated Press reports. “We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” Azar said at the Milken Institute think tank. Confronting the opioid epidemic has been a rare issue uniting Republicans and Democrats. A bill providing major funding for treatment was passed under former President Obama. More money followed earlier this year under President Trump. On Wednesday Trump is expected to sign bipartisan legislation passed this month that increases access to treatment, among other steps.
More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 10 percent increase from 2016. Azar suggested that multi-pronged efforts to bring the epidemic under control are paying off. He cited statistics showing an increase in treatment with medications such as buprenorphine and naltrexone. There’s evidence backing medication-assisted treatment, when used alongside counseling and ongoing support. He also noted much broader access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and a documented decline in the number of people misusing prescription opioids as doctors take greater care in prescribing. Azar said that toward the end of last year and through the beginning of this year, the number of deaths “has begun to plateau.” Azar did not indicate that deaths are going down, but that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen. Despite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history.