UK Poised to Make a Difference in Curbing Opioid Epidemic in State

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Oct. 18, 2018) – In 2017 alone by conservative estimates, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in America. Much of that was fueled by opioid abuse.

Think about the staggering number this way: it’s more deaths this past year than the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War. Or, put another way, at roughly 200 deaths a day, it’s the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down every 24 hours.

“What would we do in this country if a plane with 200 people was crashing every day? What steps would we take to stop it,” asked Dr. Sharon Walsh, director of the University of Kentucky’s Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR) and a distinguished professor in the College of Medicine. “One of the things we have learned about the opioid epidemic is that it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t distinguish by race, income or other demographic categories. It is a very, very unforgiving disorder.”

That question – what would we do? – is the basis of a daylong meeting today of the UK Board of Trustees. As part of its annual retreat this year, UK President Eli Capilouto, Vice President for Research Lisa Cassis and Walsh have framed an entire day of discussion and presentations around the opioid epidemic in the country and its specific impact on Kentucky.

As importantly, the discussion is centered on how UK – along with partners at the state and federal levels – is positioning itself to stem the tide of drug addiction and abuse in the state and beyond those borders.

“We are at a tipping point in Kentucky and in our country when it comes to opioids, drug abuse and death,” Capilouto said. “At UK, we are poised to do something about it. The problem and its impacts are deeply felt here. But we have a cadre of experts virtually unparalleled in the country, and we have partners at the state and federal levels committed to evidence-based strategies and bringing the resources to bear to attack the problem in the lab, the clinical setting and the community.”

By most estimates, the impact of drug deaths and overdoses in Kentucky is among the most pronounced in the country. For example, in one county in Eastern Kentucky, Walsh said more than 50 percent of the children have neither parent living in the home, a statistic largely fueled by the impact of drugs, which has ravaged a number of communities in the mountains.

Moreover, Walsh said, what is particularly pernicious about the opioid epidemic is the intergenerational nature of its impact and the web of health and societal problems that spin out from drug abuse.

Drug and opioid abuse are, for instance, tied to increased risks for HIV and Hepatitis C. Many of those ill from Hepatitis C, if left untreated, will be at risk for developing liver cancer, which has a high mortality rate. The issues associated with opioids are further complicated by the fact that the stigma associated with drug use has helped fuel higher incarceration rates along with a lack of access to a cohesive system for treating those with substance use disorders.

UK, Walsh said, is poised to help turn the tide on the epidemic, a point that will be illustrated and reinforced throughout the day with panels of university experts focused on areas such as evidence-based treatment options, the impact on families, and the effect that opioid abuse has in different settings, from hospitals to foster care.

The full agenda for the daylong examination is below.

The University already has pioneered treatment and interventions. UK HealthCare, the hospitals and clinics of the University of Kentucky use family-centered care to treat opioid use disorder as a chronic illness affecting pregnant women and their families during the perinatal period through the PATHways Prenatal and Beyond Birth clinic.  

The program incorporates the best practices in the field, adhering to federal guidelines for office-based buprenorphine treatment across the spectrum of care for women, and provides a comprehensive treatment program for a highly vulnerable population with substance use disorders.

And now in successfully competing for and utilizing federal funding, UK is examining a number of new innovative approaches, ranging from using a strategic approach to eliminate Hepatitis C in one Kentucky county to the development of new vaccines that block the effects of drugs from the brain all together, Walsh said.

In addition, partners at the state level – including John Tilley, Secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Safety Cabinet, Dr. Allen Brenzel, Medical Director at the Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, and Natalie Kelly with the Kentucky Department for Community Based Services-Foster Care – will address during the day approaches to dealing with opioid abuse in prisons, the community and in working with children and families. Those interventions are often done in partnership with, or supported by, UK and its experts.

What is important about the UK board retreat, Walsh said, is it allows researchers and policymakers to pivot from a discussion around cutting-edge science and preferred treatment options to how to make a concrete impact at the community level.

“We start by understanding the depth of this problem, which is decimating too many lives and too many communities in our state,” said Britt Brockman, UK’s board chair and a physician. “That’s where we start. As representatives of this university, and leaders in our respective communities, we don’t have to end there. We have an opportunity to turn the tide on this dread disease of addiction. As a university, we are positioning ourselves to do that – with a strategic focus and massive effort. That’s what it means to be the University for Kentucky.”

In other items during the retreat which is all day on Thursday and Friday morning, UK board members will:

  • Receive an update on the institution’s five-year strategic plan, which includes goals of a 70 percent graduation rate and 90 percent retention rate along with continued growth in research and diversity among students, faculty and staff.
  • Hear results on Friday morning of the annual evaluation of Capilouto’s performance by faculty and other stakeholders.

Agenda for Board meeting Thursday

9 a.m., Discussion -- Introduction to Opioid Use Disorder, Recruiting Room, Kroger Field

  •   Dr. Sharon Walsh, director of the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR), leads, Recruiting Room, Kroger Field

10:45 a.m., Discussion -- Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Different Settings, Recruiting Room, Kroger Field

Panel moderated by Sharon Walsh includes:

  • Dr. Allen Brenzel, medical director, Cabinet for Health and Family Services
  • Dr. Laura Fanucchi, Division of Infectious Disease, UK Hospital and Outpatient Services
  • Secretary John Tilley, Kentucky Justice and Safety Cabinet
  • Dr. Roger Humphries, Chair, UK Emergency Medicine

Noon-12:30 p.m., Highlighting Targeted UK Research: Rapid Presentations

  • Dr. Michelle Lofwall, CDAR; director of Bridge Clinic: Targeting Novel Approaches to Treatment
  • Dr. April Young, College of Public Health: Targeting Rural and Underserved Communities
  • Dr. Jennifer Havens, CDAR: Targeting Novel Approaches to Infectious Disease

1:45 p.m., Discussion -- A Focus on Family, Recruiting Room, Kroger Field

Panel moderated by Michelle Lofwall

  • Natalie Kelly, Kentucky Department of Community Based Services-Foster Care
  • Dr. Agatha Critchfield, UK Department of Obstetrics, Pathways Program
  • Dr. Kristin Ashford, UK College of Nursing; Beyond Birth Program

3 p.m., Summary and Future: Sharon Walsh and UK President Eli Capilouto, Recruiting Room, Kroger Field

3:30 p.m., Poster Session, Press Level, Kroger Field

4:30 p.m., Strategic Plan Update

graphic that says "Ending the stranglehold of opioid abuse in Kentucky"