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After losing a son to opioids, an oral surgeon fights to change how his profession deals with addiction

Dr. Omar Abubaker is campaigning for dental schools to train future dentists in the responsible prescribing of opioid painkillers.

RICHMOND, Va. — On an unseasonably warm Friday morning in October, Dr. Omar Abubaker paced in front of a small lecture hall at Virginia Commonwealth University’s dental school. The 64-year-old oral surgeon, whose sharp gray suit matched his wavy hair, quipped about his caffeine habit as he gave his third-year students a crash course on the recent history of addiction in America.

Then he took a more serious tone. Raise your hand, he said, if you’ve ever read scientific literature about addiction. The scores of scrub-clad students — white and black, mothers and fathers, former nurses and future surgeons — silently looked around the lecture hall. No one raised a hand.

“Everything you know about addiction is actually from TV, right?” Abubaker said. “Newspaper, Facebook … YouTube?” A student chuckled — a tacit acknowledgment that what she heard rang true. “There’s a disease out there that you’ll deal with that’s more likely than hypertension,” he continued. “You have no knowledge about [it].”

Four years ago, the chair of VCU’s School of Dentistry was nearly, responsible for writing prescriptions for immediate-release opioids nationwide. Prescription opioids, in turn, are widely considered the root of a national opioid crisis that’s caused more than 300,000 deaths since 2000.

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