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OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma pleads guilty, admits to role in deadly opioid epidemic

Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty Tuesday to three criminal charges, formally admitting its role in an opioid epidemic that has contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths over the past two decades.

In a virtual hearing with a federal judge in Newark, N.J., the OxyContin maker admitted impeding the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts to combat the addiction crisis.

Purdue also acknowledged that it had not maintained an effective program to prevent prescription drugs from being diverted to the black market, even though it had told the DEA it did have such a program, and that it provided misleading information to the agency as a way to boost company manufacturing quotas.

It also admitted paying doctors through a speakers program to induce them to write more prescriptions for its painkillers.

The guilty pleas were entered by Purdue board chairperson Steve Miller on behalf of the company. They were part of a criminal and civil settlement announced last month between the Stamford, Conn.-based company and the U.S. Justice Department.


Members of the Sackler family, who own the company, have also agreed to pay $ 225 million US to the federal government to settle civil claims. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Hundreds of thousands of deaths attributed to opioids

The deal includes $ 8.3 billion US in penalties and forfeitures, but the company is on the hook for a direct payment to the federal government of just a fraction of that, $ 225 million. It would pay the smaller amount as long as it executes a settlement moving through federal bankruptcy court with state and local governments and other entities suing it over the toll of the opioid epidemic.

Members of the wealthy Sackler family who own the company have also agreed to pay $ 225 million to the federal government to settle civil claims. No criminal charges have been filed against family members, although their deal leaves open the possibility of that in the future.

“Having our plea accepted in federal court, and taking responsibility for past misconduct, is an essential step to preserve billions of dollars of value for creditors and advance our goal of providing financial resources and lifesaving medicines to address the opioid crisis,” Purdue said in a written statement after pleading guilty.

“We continue to work tirelessly to build additional support for a proposed bankruptcy settlement, which would direct the overwhelming majority of the settlement funds to state, local and tribal governments for the purpose of abating the opioid crisis,” the statement read.

Purdue’s plea to federal crimes provides only minor comfort for advocates who want to see harsher penalties for the OxyContin maker and its owners.

The ongoing drug overdose crisis, which appears to be growing worse during the coronavirus pandemic, has contributed to the deaths of more than 470,000 Americans over the past two decades, most of those from legal and illicit opioids.


Purdue has admitted that it impeded efforts to fight the deadly opioid crisis and paid doctors to prescribe more of the painkillers. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Opposition to settlement

There were an estimated 16,364 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada between January 2016 and March 2020, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

Cynthia Munger, whose son is in recovery from opioid addiction after being prescribed OxyContin more than a decade ago as a high school baseball player with a shoulder injury, is among the activists pushing for Purdue owners and company officials to be charged with crimes.

“Until we do that and we stop accusing brick and mortar and not individuals, nothing will change,” said Munger, who lives in Wayne, Pa.

The attorneys general for about half the states opposed the federal settlement, as well as the company’s proposed settlement in bankruptcy court. In the bankruptcy case, Purdue has proposed transforming into a public benefit corporation with its proceeds going to help address the opioid crisis.

The attorneys general and some activists are upset that despite the Sacklers giving up control of the company, the family remains wealthy and its members will not face prison or other individual penalties.

The activists say there’s no difference between the actions of the company and its owners, who also controlled Purdue’s board until the past few years.

Last week, as part of a motion to get access to more family documents, the attorneys general who oppose the deals filed documents that put members of the Sackler family at the centre of Purdue’s continued push for OxyContin sales even as opioid-related deaths rose.

Company tried to ‘supercharge’ opioid sales

The newly public documents include emails among consultants from McKinsey & Corp., hired by the company to help boost the business.

One from 2008, a year after the company first pleaded guilty to opioid-related crimes, says board members, including a Sackler family member, ” ‘blessed’ him to do whatever he thinks is necessary to ‘save the business.’ “

Another McKinsey internal email details how a mid-level Purdue employee felt about the company.

It offers more evidence of the Sacklers being hands-on, saying, “The brothers who started the company viewed all employees like the guys who ‘trim the hedges’ — employees should do exactly what’s asked of them and not say too much.”

The documents also describe the company trying to “supercharge” opioid sales in 2013, as reaction to the overdose crisis was taking a toll on prescribing.

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Pandemic worsens Canada’s deadly opioid overdose epidemic

An epidemic of fatal drug overdoses across Canada is on the rise amid COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that harm-reduction workers and doctors say exacerbates the toxic supply.

Overdose prevention sites continue to run but physical distancing guidelines mean fewer people are able to use the services. For example, a site in Toronto that previously averaged more than 100 visits a day now sees fewer than half that.

From March 2019 to May 2020, Ontario’s coroner reported a 25 per cent increase in fatal overdoses, based on preliminary estimates for all substances.

Nick Boyce, director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, said the increase is significant.

“It matches anecdotally what I’ve been hearing from the front-line workers we work with around the province,” Boyce said. “They’re all saying deaths are going up. But to hear that number and to see that number, I was not expecting it to be that high.”

Last year, fentanyl directly contributed to about 75 per cent of opioid-related deaths in Ontario.

More than 14,000 Canadians have been killed by opioids in the last four years, according to federal data

“Laws actually incentivize drug dealers and suppliers to come up with new and different drugs,” Boyce said. “We learned this lesson in the 1920s with alcohol prohibition when people switched from drinking beer to toxic moonshine. We’re seeing that with the opioid drug supply now.”


Nick Boyce says front-line workers report overdose deaths are going up across Ontario and a safer drug supply would help reduce the problem. (Melissa Haughton/CBC)

Stimulant-related deaths have also increased in Ontario.

British Columbia saw a 39 per cent jump in overdose deaths in April compared to the same month last year.

And in Alberta during the pandemic, the number of opioid-related calls to EMS increased from 257 in March to 550 this May.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has pointed to similar overdose trends across the country.

Back when COVID-19 was first declared a pandemic in March, a woman CBC News is calling Lisa to protect her identity was living in a tent in downtown Toronto. When people were ordered to stay inside, she said there were few places to go. Her struggle with street opioids deepened.

“I OD’ed three times and woke up alone because I was using alone,” Lisa said, referring to overdoses.

Lisa relies on overdose prevention sites; her health-care provider worked with a pharmacist to offer methadone or Suboxone as well as safe supplies as part of harm reduction services.

“I see a lot more deaths in my circles,” Lisa said.

‘Disaster of epic proportions’

Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser at the BC Centre for Substance Use in Vancouver, blames increasingly toxic street drugs, usually laced with fentanyl or its analogues, for the increase in deadly overdoses. The direct relationships users  had to get drugs from dealers were cut off in the pandemic.

“You add COVID into the mix, I mean it’s just a disaster of epic proportions,” Felicella said.

In pandemic prescribing, Felicella said a medical version of a drug is offered to users instead of the tainted street version. But that doesn’t address what most people who use substances are seeking in order not to feel sick from withdrawal, he added.

Dr. Jennifer Brasch leads addiction psychiatry at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont. She’s heard from patients that it is harder to access their substance of choice during COVID-19.

“It’s very stressful to be socially isolated and fearful of catching COVID-19,” said Brasch, who also works at the Hamilton Clinic, a medical service provider. “When people are stressed and anxious, they may use more substances in order to cope.”

Health Canada has temporarily eased restrictions on some medications used for treatment of addictions. Brasch said some doctors are also prescribing slow-release morphine with methadone to protect patients from fentanyl in street supplies.

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Slovenia is 1st in Europe to call an end to its coronavirus epidemic

The Slovenian government late on Thursday called an official end to its coronavirus epidemic, becoming the first European country to do so, after authorities confirmed fewer than seven new coronavirus cases each day for the past two weeks.

People now arriving in Slovenia from other European Union states will no longer be obligated to go into a quarantine for at least seven days, as was the case from early April, the government said in a statement.

The country of two million people, which borders Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, has so far reported 1,464 coronavirus cases and 103 deaths. It declared an epidemic on March 12.

“Slovenia has tamed the epidemic over the past two months. … Today, Slovenia has the best epidemiologic picture in Europe,” Prime Minister Janez Jansa told parliament earlier Thursday.

Some aid measures to end

The end of the epidemic means some measures, including financial aid to citizens and firms hit by the coronavirus, will expire at the end of May.

The government said foreign citizens who show signs of coronavirus infection will still not be allowed to enter the country.

A quarantine of at least 14 days will remain in place for people from non-EU states, except for some exemptions that include diplomats and people transporting cargo.

Citizens will still have to follow basic rules to prevent a possible spread of infection, the government said without elaborating.

People have been required to wear masks in indoor public spaces, stand at least 1.5 metres apart and disinfect hands upon entering public spaces.

Since the middle of March, Slovenia has closed all schools, sports and cultural institutions, bars, restaurants, hotels and shops apart from food shops and drugstores, while cancelling public transport.

The government started easing its lockdown on April 20. Public transport resumed earlier this week, while next week some pupils will return to schools. All bars and restaurants, as well as small hotels with up to 30 rooms, will be allowed to open next week.

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5 Serie A games postponed in Italy due to coronavirus epidemic

Five Serie A soccer games in Italy were postponed on Saturday in an attempt to contain the spread of a virus outbreak.

The fixtures were originally due to be played without fans this weekend but the decision to call them off was taken by the league as part of “urgent measures for the containment and management” of the COVID-19 disease.

Italy has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading virus with 888 cases recorded in the latest tally, making it the hardest hit country outside Asia.

With clusters of virus infections in the Lombardy and Veneto regions, the biggest fixture lost from the Serie A program is league leader Juventus’ home game against Inter Milan in Turin, a match known as the Derby d’Italia, or Italy’s derby.

The game between first and third was scheduled for Sunday but is now due to be played on May 13. The other games postponed until then are AC Milan vs. Genoa, Parma vs. Spal, Udinese vs. Fiorentina and Sassuolo vs. Brescia.

Italian cup final delayed

Consequently, the Italian Cup final will be delayed by a week to May 20.

“The emergency due to the cases of coronavirus in Italy has forced the government and other authorities to make unpopular but necessary decisions,” Italy’s sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora said. “Decisions that have to be formed around and updated by the developments of the data and by advice from the scientific community, making citizens’ health the priority and trying, as much as possible, to limit the consequences for all citizens.”

Spadafora added that the decision to postpone the games was “unanimous” by sports and soccer authorities who feared that playing in empty stadiums would have “repercussions on our country’s image.”

Researchers at Milan’s Sacco Hospital said they isolated in four patients an Italian variation of COVID-19 that is different from the strain identified in Wuhan, China, where the epidemic began. They expressed hope the discovery could lead to more targeted treatment of patients.

Four games were still due to go ahead in Italy’s top division this weekend.

Concern growing for Inter Milan

Inter CEO Giuseppe Marotta said that the postponements made him “very concerned.”

“If the cabinet extends the measures until March 8, I’m asking myself how we’ll be able to handle certain matches in the next round, when we have teams playing in Europe for games like Atalanta-Lazio, Inter-Sassuolo or Bologna-Juventus,” Marotta said.

Marotta added that Inter has requested an emergency board meeting or league assembly, “because there are a lot of subjects to discuss and the equilibrium and competitiveness of the league must be salvaged.”

Marotta said that Inter’s Europa League game against Ludogrets on Thursday, which was played in an empty stadium, was “a surreal experience that penalizes fans, but there’s an emergency and we must keep the season going. Sincerely, I don’t see other options.”

Udinese general director Franco Collavino, meanwhile, said his club “did everything possible to avoid playing behind closed doors.”

“In the end the most logical and fair solution was decided on,” Collavino added.

Soccer has also been impacted elsewhere in Europe, with games in the top two divisions in Switzerland postponed after a federal order that will see all events involving more than 1,000 people banned until mid-March.

Paris half-marathon cancelled

The Paris half-marathon has been cancelled because of the spread of a coronavirus epidemic in the country.

Health minister Olivier Veran announced the move on Saturday as the French government also decided to ban all indoor public gatherings of more than 5,000 people.

The race involving some 44,000 competitors was scheduled for Sunday in the French capital city. Organizers said the race will be postponed to a date yet to be determined.

As of Saturday, France had registered a total of 73 cases, up from 57 on Friday. Of those, 59 people remain hospitalized, two have died and 12 have recovered, the minister said.

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Jason Momoa Apologizes to Chris Pratt After Calling Him Out: I’m ‘Passionate’ About This ‘Epidemic’

Jason Momoa Apologizes to Chris Pratt After Calling Him Out: I’m ‘Passionate’ About This ‘Epidemic’ | Entertainment Tonight

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Drug companies in opioid epidemic settle with Ohio counties, avoiding 1st federal trial

Four big drug companies have reached a last-minute, $ 260 million legal settlement over their role in the U.S. opioid addiction epidemic, averting the first federal trial that was scheduled to start Monday morning in Cleveland.

The settlement covers drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp. and Israel-based drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., and ends lawsuits by two Ohio counties.

Hunter Shklonik, an attorney for the counties, said Teva is paying $ 20 million in cash and will contribute $ 25 million worth of Suboxone, an opioid addiction treatment.

On Friday, talks collapsed aimed at reaching a broader $ 48-billion US settlement covering thousands of lawsuits filed by counties, towns and states from across the country over the crisis.

The trial was scheduled to pit two Ohio counties against the five companies that the local governments say helped fuel a nationwide crisis. Some 400,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, according to government data.

The judge overseeing Monday’s trial said he would work out a new trial date for the remaining defendant, pharmacy chain operator Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

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Philippines declares national epidemic over dengue, which has killed over 600 this year

The Philippines Department of Health on Tuesday declared the country’s outbreak of dengue to be a national epidemic.

The agency said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III made the declaration to improve the response to the outbreak by allowing local governments to draw on a special Quick Response Fund.

It said the Philippines has recorded 146,062 cases of dengue from January through July 20 this year, 98 per cent more than during the same period in 2018. It said the outbreak caused 622 deaths.

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral infection found in tropical countries worldwide. It can cause joint pain, nausea, vomiting and a rash, and can cause breathing problems, hemorrhaging and organ failure in severe cases. While there is no specific treatment for the illness, medical care to maintain a person’s fluid levels is seen as critical.

The Department of Health said that starting Tuesday, it was conducting a campaign to focus on finding and destroying mosquito breeding sites, which is a primary means of containing dengue. Other government agencies, local government units, schools, offices and communities will join in the effort, it said.

Other Southeast Asian countries have also reported an upsurge in dengue cases this year, according to the UN’s World Health Organization. The organization said Malaysia had registered 62,421 cases through June 29, including 93 deaths, compared to 32,425 cases with 53 deaths for the same period last year. Vietnam over the same period had 81,132 cases with four deaths reported, compared to 26,201 cases including six deaths in 2018.

In South Asia, Bangladesh has been facing its worst ever dengue fever outbreak, putting a severe strain on the country’s already overwhelmed medical system.

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Madagascar measles epidemic kills more than 1,200 despite desire for vaccinations

Babies wail as a nurse tries to reassure mothers who have come to vaccinate their children. They fear a measles epidemic that has killed more than 1,200 people in this island nation where many are desperately poor.

As Madagascar faces its largest measles outbreak in history and cases soar well beyond 115,000, there is poor vaccine coverage caused, not by resistance to vaccinating children, but by lack of access to health resources.

Measles cases are rising in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world, in part the result of misinformation that makes some parents balk at a crucial vaccine. British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and parts of Ontario have all had confirmed cases, while New York City is trying to halt a measles outbreak by ordering mandatory vaccinations in one Brooklyn neighbourhood.

In Madagascar, many parents would like to protect their children but face immense challenges, including the lack of resources.

Just 58 per cent percent of people on Madagascar’s main island have been vaccinated against measles, a major factor in the outbreak’s spread. With measles one of the most infectious diseases, immunization rates need to be 90 to 95 per cent or higher to prevent outbreaks.

According to UNICEF, Madagascar has reported more than 118,000 cases of measles in the past six months, and there have been 1,688 reported deaths.

On a recent day the Iarintsena health centre’s waiting room was full, with mothers sitting on the floor and others waiting outside in the overwhelming heat. Two volunteer nurses and a midwife tried to respond to the demand.

Nifaliana Razaijafisoa had walked 15 kilometres with her six-month-old baby in her arms.

“He has a fever,” she said. “I think it’s measles because there are these little pimples that have appeared on his face.” The nurse quickly confirmed it.

“I’m so scared for him because in the village everyone says it kills babies,” Razaijafisoa said.

Malnutrition ‘the bed of measles’

The measles outbreak has killed mostly children under age 15 since it began in September, according to the World Health Organization.

“The epidemic unfortunately continues to expand in size” though at a slower pace than a month ago, said Dr. Dossou Vincent Sodjinou, a WHO epidemiologist in Madagascar. By mid-March, 117,075 cases had been reported by the health ministry, affecting all regions of the country.

The island nation faces its largest measles outbreak in history, with cases exceeding 115,000. (Laetitia Bezain/Associated Press)

Some cases of resistance to vaccinations exist because of the influence of religion or of traditional health practitioners, but they are isolated ones, he said.

This epidemic is complicated by the fact that nearly 50 per cent of children in Madagascar are malnourished.

“Malnutrition is the bed of measles, ” Sodjinou said.

Razaijafisoa’s baby weighs just 11 pounds (5 kg).

“This is the case for almost all children with measles who have come here,” said Lantonirina Rasolofoniaina, a volunteer at the health centre.

Simply reaching a clinic for help can be a challenge. Many people in Madagascar cannot afford to see a doctor or buy medicine, and health centres often are understaffed or have poorly qualified workers.

As a result, information about health issues can be unreliable. Some parents are not aware that vaccines are free, at least in public health centres.

Four of Erika Hantriniaina’s five children have had measles. She had wrongly believed that people could not be vaccinated after nine months of age.

No specific treatment for disease

“It’s my six-year-old daughter who had measles first. She had a lot of fever,” she said. “I called the doctor, but it was Friday. He had already gone to town. I went to see another doctor who told me that my daughter had an allergy. … This misdiagnosis was almost fatal.”

The girl had diarrhea and vomiting and couldn’t eat, Hantriniaina said, adding that she narrowly survived.

Measles, a highly infectious disease spread by coughing, sneezing, close contact or infected surfaces, has no specific treatment. The symptoms are treated instead.

“Vitamin A is given to children to increase their immunity. We try to reduce the fever. If there is a cough, we give antibiotics,” said Dr. Boniface Maronko, sent by WHO to Madagascar to supervise efforts to contain the outbreak. If the disease is not treated early enough, complications can appear, including diarrhea, bronchitis, pneumonia and convulsions.

Many parents in Madagascar would like to vaccinate their children but face immense challenges including the lack of resources and information. (Laetitia Bezain/Associated Press)

Madagascar’s health ministry has sent free medications to regions most affected by the epidemic. Maronko reminded heads of health centres in the Ambalavao region not to make parents pay, saying he had seen some doctors asking for money. He told the AP he feared the medicines wouldn’t be enough.

The country’s capital, Antananarivo, a city of some 1.3 million, has not been spared by the epidemic.

Lalatiana Ravonjisoa, a vegetable vendor in a poor district, grieves for her five-month-old baby.

“I had five children. They all had measles. For the last, I did not go to see the doctor, because I did not have money,” she said. “I gave my baby the leftover medications from his big brother to bring down the fever.”

For a few days she did not worry: “I felt like he was healed.” But one morning she noticed he had trouble breathing. Later she found his feet were cold.

“Look at my baby,” she told her mother.

“She hugged him for a long time and she did not say anything. Then she asked me to be strong. He was gone.”

Ravonjisoa said she blames herself, “but I did not imagine for one moment that he was going to die.” At the hospital, a doctor confirmed that her baby died of measles-related respiratory complications.

Late last month WHO started a third mass measles vaccination campaign in Madagascar with the overall goal of reaching 7.2 million children aged six months to nine years.

“But immunization is not the only strategy for the response to this epidemic. We still need resources for care, monitoring and social mobilization,” said Sodjinou, the WHO epidemiologist.

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‘Generation-long epidemic’: Compensation funds running out as 9/11-related illnesses rise

Thomas Wilson rarely left Ground Zero in the dizzying month following the attacks of September 11, 2001.

A New York City police sergeant at the time, Wilson spent his days sifting through the tangled, charred rubble of the World Trade Centre. When night came, he slept for a few hours in one of the makeshift dormitories that sprung up around the site — a fierce sense of duty prevented him from being anywhere else.

“A job had to be done,” he said. “It was the right thing to do.”

Wilson counted himself lucky for escaping that day when so many others didn’t. But seven years later, 9/11 caught up with him. He was diagnosed with a rare tongue, and later, skin cancer—both of which doctors said were linked to his time spent at Ground Zero.

Cars smoulder in the street as the destroyed World Trade Center burns in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. (Peter Morgan/Reuters)

Wilson, a father of five, was shocked but not entirely surprised. He remembered the lack of proper protective gear and the metallic odour of the toxic brew of carcinogens that hovered over what he, and other first responders, dubbed “The Pile.”

“It just perforated everything,” he said.

Wilson is one of more than 11,000 first responders and survivors who’ve been diagnosed with a 9/11-related cancer, according to the World Trade Centre Health program, part of the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

In 2011, about 60,000 people were registered as having 9/11-related illnesses. By December 2018, that number was higher than 93,000, according to WTC Health Program.

The growing number has put crippling pressure on the September 11 Victim Compensation fund, set up by the U.S. government to provide financial aid for the sick and the families of those who’ve died from their illnesses.

Former NYPD sergeant Thomas Wilson was diagnosed with tongue and skin cancer related to his service at Ground Zero following Sept. 11, 2001. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

The fund is running out of money faster than expected and, to ration what’s left, future payments are set to be cut by up to 70 per cent — a decrease that could mean undue financial stress, in addition to life-changing health challenges, for people impacted by that awful day.

“I am painfully aware of the inequity of this situation,” the administrator of the fund, Rupa Bhattacharyya said in the fall. “But the stark reality of the data leaves me no choice.”

Before the cuts were announced, compensation rates for people diagnosed with 9/11-related ailments ranged from $ 200,000 to $ 340,000 US, depending on the type of illness and its severity.

In order to be eligible for compensation, first responders must have been working at Ground Zero and then diagnosed with one of 65 cancers doctors in the WTC program have linked to the aftermath of 9/11.

‘This is a generation-long epidemic’

Bhattacharyya’s announcement prompted a group of 9/11 first responders and their families to travel to Capitol Hill earlier this month to pressure Congress for a fix.

They appeared with Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, as she announced a bipartisan bill that would make the fund — set to expire in 2020 — permanent.

Doing so would likely render the compensation cuts unnecessary and protect those diagnosed with 9/11-related illnesses in the future. But the bill currently does not have enough votes to pass.

“This is a no-brainer,” said John Feal, a leading advocate for 9/11 first responders, whose foot was crushed by a steel beam as he removed debris from Ground Zero.

“This is an ongoing thing; this is a generation-long epidemic.”

John Feal, whose foot was crushed by a steel beam while he was working at Ground Zero, stands in front of the future site of a memorial for those who’ve died from 9/11-related illness. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

And it’s only going to get worse, said doctors treating people with 9/11-related conditions.

Some doctors estimate that more people will eventually die of 9/11-related conditions than the nearly 3,000 people who died on the day itself.

Many of the cancers linked to breathing in toxic air potentially take decades to develop, meaning the scope of the crisis could grow exponentially in the coming years. 

“It’s a huge problem,” said Dr. Benjamin Luft, a physician at Stony Brook University Hospital who works with the WTC Health program. “Overall, the amount of suffering that occurs post-trauma far exceeds the amount of trauma that occurs at the time — even though that trauma itself was enormous.”

‘We’re coming down hat in hand’

The dire predictions make Feal’s work all the more important to him. He’s organized lobbying trips to Washington every time the fund has come under threat since it was first created in 2011.

In 2015, a similar push to make it permanent was quashed by Republican lawmakers concerned over costs.

Instead, Congress gave the fund $ 7.3 billion US with the 2020 expiration date. Only about $ 2 billion US remains, with thousands of claims waiting to be processed and more people registering everyday.

“We’re coming down hat in hand,” said Wilson. “We’re begging for our brothers and sisters who are too sick to go and lobby on their own.”

A firefighter walks amid rubble near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. (Peter Morgan/Reuters)

And with each trip, the frustration grows. Wilson, who is still an active duty police officer, said it’s insulting to meet lawmakers who pay lipservice to remembering the attacks but refuse to actually take care of those who were caught in the aftermath of that day.

“If hypocrisy was a crime in Congress, I’d be locking people up,” he said.

It’s a sentiment echoed by fellow first responder, Charles Sullivan, a former NYPD officer. In 2015, Sullivan was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma doctors said was related to working in Lower Manhattan following the attack.

“Some people might say we’re tired of hearing about 9/11, let it go,” he said. “I’d love to let it go: if people weren’t dying everyday.”

The gift that keeps on taking

It’s a reality that Bridget Gormley and Robert Tilearcio Jr. know all too well. Their fathers were New York City firefighters who died prematurely after being diagnosed with 9/11-related cancers. 

Tilearcio’s father travelled to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress in the years before he died of brain cancer in 2017 at age 58. Now Tilearcio Jr. goes in his place.

Bridget Gormley and Robert Tilearcio Jr. lost their fathers, who were firefighters, to 9/11-related cancer. They both work at a law firm that advocates for those living with illnesses connected to September 11. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

“9/11 is the gift that keeps on taking,” he said. “Hopefully those angels watching over us can maybe get into the heads of the people who don’t want to vote yes.”

Both Tilearcio and Gormley work at law firm Barasch & McGarry, located just minutes from where the Twin Towers once stood. The firm specializes in advocating for those with 9/11-related illnesses.

“I lost my father and I’m not going to get him back,” Gormley said. “I’ve come to terms with that, but now I feel like I’m part of something bigger than me. It’s cathartic almost.”

Partner Michael Barasch represented both of their fathers before they died. On 9/11, he watched from his office window as the South Tower collapsed.

“I was like a deer in highlights,” he said. “We are some of the same people that you’ve seen in those famous photographs covered in dust and ash, running up Broadway.”

Lawyer Michael Barasch watched the South Tower of the World Trade Collapse collapse from his office window. He’s dedicated his career to helping those with 9/11-related illness. (Ellen Mauro/CBC News )

Like Feal, Barasch has made many trips to Washington on his clients’ behalf.

“In many cases, it’s the difference between keeping your house and not keeping your house,” he said of the compensation cuts. “Congress just didn’t set aside enough money for all the people getting sick.”

Gormley said one of the hardest parts of losing her father was thinking he survived 9/11 — that her family had dodged a terrible fate — only for that day to change his life so many years later. 

“You have survivors who are turning into victims,” she said. “Everyone’s looking over their shoulder wondering what’s going to happen next.”

Fear of the future

Rob Serra lives with that anxiety everyday.

He was 21 years old on 9/11, his first day on the job as an New York firefighter. His health problems began almost immediately as he suffered with an uncontrollable nosebleed while working at Ground Zero.

Other issues followed. Nasal polyps had to be surgically removed, respiratory problems arose, and nerve damage means he sometimes relies on a wheelchair. His downward health spiral forced Serra to retire from the FDNY at just 33.

“I feel like the sand is moving a little quicker through the hourglass,” he said.

Serra now spends his time advocating for the fund. Compared to those waiting for their claims to be processed or the yet-to-be diagnosed, Serra said he’s lucky. He received his compensation before the cuts were announced — money to help take care of his young children now that he can no longer work.   

But it does little to ease his fear — a fear that stalks so many of 9/11’s first responders — that he won’t get to see his kids grow up.

“I’m hoping to see them go to high school but I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t imagine that I got all these other illnesses so early on and I’m not going to get cancer.”

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