Nation’s top medical officer witnesses front lines Alaska’s opioid epidemic

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in the Napaskiak clinic with Community Health Practitioner Augusta Williams and YKHC CEO Dan Winkelman. (Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK)

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in the Napaskiak clinic with Community Health Practitioner Augusta Williams and YKHC CEO Dan Winkelman.
(Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK)

The national opioid epidemic gives no exception to rural Alaska.

The U.S. Surgeon General will release a report on substance abuse addiction and health later this year.

To prepare, the nation’s top medical officer is meeting with health care providers around the country on ways to prevent or treat opioid addiction.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy traveled last week to Napaskiak, a town of 500, located 7 miles down the Kuskokwim river from Bethel, to learn how the opioid epidemic is affecting the small Alaska village, but Larson has other issues on his mind.

“We have a water and sewer haul system, and like 40 percent of the home system is not working,” he said. “And we’re having problems with sanitation.”

Larson’s list continues.

Alcohol-related problems like public drunkenness and domestic violence have increased since Bethel opened a liquor store, he said.

“Another issue that we’re facing today is suicide,” he said. “We have like 500 people, and we lose one person every year.”

He attributes the deaths to not enough jobs, cultural ties between elders and young people unraveling, and drugs.

“But it’s been around for a long time, the alcohol and drug abuse,” he said. “I think there’s more of it today.”

The Surgeon General came to talk with Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation about the heroin treatment program it’s developing.

Opioids can often lead to heroin once the opioid prescription runs out or gets too expensive.

On the clinical side, the health corporation offers offering Narcan, a drug that blocks the effects of opioids and can reverse an overdose. It is also closely monitoring how many opioids it’s prescribing and for how long. On the behavioral health side, the health corporation heavily relies on tele-medicine. That’s when a patient talks to a counselor through a TV screen.

Murthy sees this technology, combined with drugs like Narcan, holding the greatest hope for rural communities such Napakiak for accessing substance treatment.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office will release a report later this year on treating substance abuse addiction.

Surgeon General reports— such as the 1964 report on tobacco— have a history of changing government policy and health care.

Recent headlines

X