One of the nation's top public-health officials has explained why the fight against the opioid epidemic is so personal to him.
At a conference in New Orleans, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert R. Redfield opened up about his family's experience with opioids, saying that one of his adult children nearly died of an overdose of cocaine mixed with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the Associated Press.
“For me, it’s personal: I almost lost one of my children from it,” Redfield said Thursday at the National Association of County and City Health Officials conference, according to the AP.
Redfield on Tuesday declined to comment on his speech but said in a statement to The Washington Post that he believes it is “important for society to embrace and support families who are fighting to win the battle of addiction — because stigma is the enemy of public health.”
Since March, Redfield has helmed the CDC — “the nation’s health protection agency,” which has been active on the front lines of the fight against opioid abuse. On its website, the CDC says it “continues to fight the opioid overdose epidemic, working to save lives and prevent negative health effects of this epidemic.”
During his speech at the county and city health officials conference, Redfield spoke about the difficulties of finding treatment for his son, according to Umair Shah, the organization's outgoing head.
“It was a close-to-home story, and he spoke quite personally,” Shah, executive director of the Harris County public-health agency in Texas, said Tuesday.
Public records show that the son, a 37-year-old musician, was charged with drug possession in 2016 in Maryland. The outcome of the case is not available in public records.
Shah praised Redfield for speaking out. Too often, he said, medical and public-health professionals avoid talking about personal connections or showing emotion.
“We don’t want to be seen as too vulnerable or too unprofessional,” Shah told The Post. “And here he is sharing such an intimate story.”
It shows how important it is for health professionals to “remain connected to the patients that we serve,” Shah added.
After Redfield was appointed director of the CDC in March, he became emotional in his address to the agency, choking up as he talked about the honor of leading the best “science-based, data-driven agency in the world. I've dreamed of doing this for a long time.”
As The Post reported, Redfield’s main career focus has been chronic human infections, especially HIV/AIDS. He headed clinical care and research at the University of Maryland medical school’s Institute of Human Virology. He also oversaw programs caring for 6,000 patients in the Baltimore-Washington region, as well as for more than 1.3 million patients in Africa and the Caribbean as part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR.
His appointment had drawn criticism because of his once-controversial positions on HIV testing during the first decade of the AIDS crisis, his ties to conservative AIDS organizations that supported abstinence-based prevention and his lack of experience with governmental public-health organizations.
“I'm a little nervous. I'm an outsider,” he said at the time of his appointment. “I didn't grow up here in CDC, but I hope you accept me as a member of the family and accept my wife, because we're here to serve side by side with you.”
Pharmaceutical fentanyl has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use by medical professionals — but it's the illegally manufactured form that has experts concerned.
Opioids, including fentanyl and heroin as well as other painkillers, are the main culprits of overdose deaths across the United States, according to the CDC. The number of opioid deaths has continued to climb, with more than 42,000 fatalities reported across the country in 2016, according to the most recent numbers released by the agency.