These days, there’s a lot of attention on finding new and creative ways to turn around the nation’s opioid abuse and overdose problem. And it’s attention that’s very much needed because the problem is only getting worse.
On the first day of 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new data on prescription drug and opioid overdose deaths, reporting that more people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2014 than during any other year on record. In fact, during 2014, there were about one-and-a-half more drug overdose deaths than deaths from traffic crashes, with most of those overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers and heroin. Getting into the specific numbers: Opioids caused 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2014 — in pure numbers, that’s 28,647 deaths. Between 2013 and 2014, rates of opioid overdose deaths increased 14 percent.
The data was presented in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) study. Authors Rose Rudd, Noah Aleshire, Jon Zibbell and Matthew Gladden write: “These findings indicated that the opioid overdose epidemic is worsening. There is a need for continued action to prevent opioid abuse, dependence and death, improve treatment capacity for opioid use disorders, and reduce the supply of illicit opioids, particularly heroin and illicit fentanyl.”
Back to the new data, CDC reports that from 2013 to 2014, the death rate involving natural and semisynthetic opioid pain relievers, heroin and synthetic opioids (not including methadone) increased 9 percent, 26 percent and 80 percent, respectively. The study noted that the sharp spike in synthetic opioid deaths aligned with police reports about increased availability of illegally manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid painkiller that’s more powerful than morphine. Overall, more than 47,000 drug overdose deaths happened in the U.S. in 2014 — that’s a 6.5 percent increase from 2013. Rises in drug overdose deaths were documented among men and women; among whites and blacks; among those ages 25 to 44 and 55 to 64; and in the country’s Northeast, Midwest and Southern regions. States with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths are West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio.
Between 2013 and 2014, the largest increase in the rate of drug overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and tramadol — that rate just about doubled. During the same time period, the rate of deaths from heroin overdose increased by 26 percent. Natural and semisynthetic opioids, such as morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone, accounted for the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in 2014.
The recent surge in heroin overdose deaths is particularly frightening, with that rate more than tripling in the last four years, reported CDC, which also noted that previous abuse of prescription opioids is “the strongest factor” for initiating heroin use. The agency recently reported that heroin use has increased among nearly every demographic group in the nation, and heroin-related overdose deaths have gone up 286 percent between 2002 and 2013.
The MMWR study calls for ramping up a number of efforts to curb the opioid abuse and overdose epidemic, including better prescribing practices. (Check out this recent study that found that more than 90 percent of people who overdosed on an opioid medication continued to receive a painkiller prescription.) In fact, CDC is now accepting comments on its draft guidance for prescribing opioids for chronic pain patients. You can read about the proposed guidelines here, and the comment period closes on Jan. 13.
To read the full MMWR study, visit CDC.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for nearly 15 years.