In March of 2017, President Trump established a federal commission to address the United States’ opioid crisis. In October, he declared the crisis — which claimed 33,000 lives in 2015 — a public health emergency. And in November, his commission released a report containing 56 recommendations for combatting the problem.
But despite all this, legislators say they have seen little concrete action. And now Democratic senators in two states are demanding answers.
In a letter addressed to President Trump on Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington wrote that they were concerned “by reports that in spite of the opioid epidemic’s devastating impact on American communities,” the administration has not moved to aggressively tackle it. The senators requested that for each of the opioid commission report’s recommendations, the president provide a designation of “complete,” “in progress,” or “not yet been started,” along with details of how the recommendation is being carried out — or not.
Some of the recommendations in that report included improving training for opioid prescribers and allowing more emergency responders to carry and administer naloxone — an opioid overdose antidote.
The commission also advised doing away with the practice of evaluating doctors on how well they treat patients’ pain, a measure aimed at curbing the prescription frenzy of the last few decades.
At a rally in New Hampshire last month, Trump did discuss some plans based on the commission’s recommendations, though he focused heavily on the criminal justice system and offered few details regarding funding. Of legally-obtained drugs, Trump said his aim is to reduce opioid prescriptions by a third within three years, a move critics argue could lead some patients to seek out heroin or its synthetic counterpart, fentanyl.
Indeed, two studies published this week suggest that while the government crackdown on opioid prescriptions has likely cut down on related deaths over the past eight years, heroin-related deaths have skyrocketed.
Speaking specifically about the development of abuse-deterrent OxyContin, which turns to a gummy paste when ground up, William Evans, co-author of one of the studies said in a statement that “the movement to heroin as a result of the reformulation meant there was a one-for-one substitution of heroin deaths for opioid deaths.”
Also in the news:
• Are you a visual or a hands-on learner? According to a growing body of research, probably neither. The idea of so-called “learning styles” — visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic — was developed in the 1990s, but there’s very little evidence to suggest that people actually learn better one way or another. In a study published last month in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, for example, students were given a questionnaire to determine which kind of learner they were. They were then given study strategies that seemingly went along with their indicated method of learning. But the study authors found that even students who studied with methods that reflected their supposed style did not fare better on tests. And in another study published last year, students’ indications of whether they were visual or auditory learners had no bearing on whether they remembered word or pictures more successfully. Rather, researchers say that while people certainly have different abilities, most tasks — imitating an accent, for example — are suited to a particular type of learning. (The Atlantic)
• In a blistering editorial in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, six former members of a federal panel on forensic science accuse the Justice Department of looking the other way while law enforcement agencies use “clearly invalid” techniques to prosecute suspected criminals. The expert panel, created in 2013 to bring scientific rigor to dubious forensic methods like bite-mark and footprint identification, was dissolved last year by the Trump administration. The six former members, all scientists, cite bite-mark identification as the most egregious example of unscientific practices — “discredited by both scientific studies and false convictions.” And they ask, ”If we are unwilling to confront the issue of accuracy in our justice system, what cause is worthy?” (The Hub)
• Last year’s multi-city March for Science drew substantial numbers of empirically-minded citizens — more than a million of them if the organizers, who used “crowd science techniques” to derive the estimate, are to be believed. But some of the event’s volunteer planners are coming under fire from social scientists for publishing what some have called decidedly unscientific survey data ahead of March for Science 2018, which is slated to get underway on Saturday. The survey results, which aimed to capture the profiles and sentiments of last year’s march participants, seemed to reveal lots of pent up frustrations with the Trump administration specifically, and Republicans in Congress in general. That doesn’t seem all that surprising, of course, but social scientists were quick to point out that the methodology used for gathering the responses — essentially a self-selecting online survey — rendered the results all but meaningless. “If a student in an introductory statistics class had asked me if they could do this,” one prominent political scientist complained, “my answer would have been ‘no.’” (Science)
• It’s a lark’s, lark’s, lark’s world. After following the health of 430,000 people for about six years, a new study suggests that, compared to early risers, night owls have a 10 percent increased risk of dying from any cause. They’re also twice as likely to have a psychological disorder and at a 22 percent higher risk for gastrointestinal disease. “What we think might be happening,” says Kristen Knutson, a leading author of the study, “is there’s a problem for the night owl who’s trying to live in the morning lark world.” It’s believed a person’s natural circadian rhythm, or chronotype, is likely a mixture of environmental and inherited factors — and therefore at least partly determined by genes. So what’s a night owl to do? According to Knutson, switching to an earlier schedule could be a start; she suggests gradually advancing your bedtime and avoiding your phone and other devices at night. Finding a job with hours more consistent with your biological clock could also be an option. While previous research has suggested that night owls are at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease, and even prostate and breast cancer, this is the first study to look directly at mortality. (New York Times, CNN)
• The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating research conducted by a professor at Southern Illinois University who administered injections of an experimental herpes vaccine without required government oversight. William Halford, who passed away in June, was not a medical doctor and injected participants with the vaccine in Illinois hotel rooms in 2013 and in St. Kitts and Nevis, an island nation in the Caribbean, in 2016. The FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations is focused on whether anyone from SIU or Halford’s former company, Rational Vaccines, assisted with his unauthorized research. The government of St. Kitts and Nevis launched its own investigation in the summer of 2017, upon learning the clinical trials had taken place without the Ministry of Health’s knowledge or oversight. Similarly, an SIU spokeswoman said the university first learned about the trials in October 2016. Rational Vaccines received millions in private investments following the 2016 trials, including from billionaire Peter Thiel. (Kaiser Health News)
• And finally: Under pressure from Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week began restoring previously blacked-out information to its publicly released animal inspection reports. Last August, the agency began omitting species and numbers of animals housed at both private and government facilities from its published inspections. Both legislators and animal advocates reacted negatively; last month the Humane Society of the United States sued the agency for releasing inspections of puppy mills rendered almost meaningless as the dates, numbers of animals, and violations were all redacted from the documents. On April 9th, the agency again started including such information in the inspection reports, apparently responding to a warning from Congress attached to its budget report. But USDA officials refused to comment on whether they would continue the policy of increased openness throughout the year. (Science)