The Daily News
There have been a variety of comments and criticisms in reaction to Gov. Tom Wolf’s announcement regarding the distribution of Narcan at state health centers Dec. 13. Please consider the following thoughts:
Most of us can agree that individuals with chronic health conditions ought to have access to affordable rescue or life-sustaining medications. Severe allergies, diabetes, heart disease and substance use disorders are all chronic medical conditions.
There are several factors which contribute to the development of these diseases. Some like severe allergies may be mostly a result of a person’s genetic lottery—the person inherits a sensitivity to a substance which can become life-threatening if they come into contact with that substance. Often, a person does not know about their allergy until they have a reaction. They discover it because they made a choice which places them in contact.
Other chronic conditions develop over time, and are much more complicated to understand a cause—some people inherit a genetic combination that places them at a higher risk or increases their vulnerability to a disease. Through a series of choices, learned behaviors and habits over a course of months or years, the person gets the disease. This can be true of Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, lung diseases and many more.
Both statements are true when we are talking about substance use disorders. They are life-threatening, brain-based medical diseases. A person can be often unaware of or misinformed about his or her own vulnerability to developing an addiction. Others in the general public may reply, “Come on! They knew the risks and still made the choice.” And yes, this is often true of human beings. We know the long-term risks and still choose to do the unhealthy thing because it meets a need or feels good in the moment. It’s why people eat high sugar, high fat foods; don’t exercise; drive too fast; drink alcohol; or engage in other risky actions even though they are technically aware of the potential harmful consequences.
Dr. Nora Volkow sums it up nicely. She says, “Addiction is not so different from other diseases that also involve choices before the disease takes hold. Think about heart disease. It can be caused by smoking, eating fatty foods, etc., but once the heart is diseased, we do whatever is necessary to help a person recover—that includes medication and healthy behaviors—which they are responsible for doing. Addiction is the same, and one of the goals of treatment is to re-train the brain to restore a person’s ability to make good choices.”
As humans, we value life and therefore invest in life-saving tools. Narcan can and does save lives. In 2017, it saved over 3,500 lives in Pennsylvania alone. Surviving an overdose gives a person the chance to enter treatment, and to rehabilitate the brain so that the ability make different, healthier choices can be restored. Like many other relapsing and remitting chronic medical diseases, substance use disorders sometimes take multiple rounds of treatment before the disease is fully in remission for the long haul. I personally can look any parent, child, partner, sibling or friend in the eye and say that I believe their loved one’s life is worth the investment. I hope that you can too.