Overdose deaths an epidemic in the U.S.

December 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

There are many ways to slice the data about the number of Americans who die from overdoses of opioids, but the bottom line is this: Opioid abuse is an epidemic that is killing more and more people.

The latest report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a sharp increase in the number of opioid-related deaths – roughly 16 percent more in 2015 than in 2014. But the greatest factor in the increase was illegal substances such as heroin and fentanyl, a manufactured drug – not the abuse of prescription painkillers.

The overall problem of opioid abuse amounts to a public health crisis, the CDC said.

“A multifaceted, collaborative public health and law enforcement approach is urgently needed,” wrote the authors of the CDC report.

Grim numbers

Drug overdoses killed 52,404 people in the United States in 2015. Of those deaths, more than 33,000, or about 63 percent, involved an opioid.

The biggest factor in the spike in opioid overdose deaths was the shocking gain in cases involving synthetic opioids. Such deaths rose more than 72 percent in one year, and fentanyl appears to be the primary reason.

Fentanyl is made mainly in China “and likely Mexico,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. It is mixed with heroin or sold as an extremely potent powder or tablet that provides euphoric effects. Law enforcement authorities found that the number of drug products that tested positive for fentanyl more than quadrupled from 2013 to 2014. The DEA recently declared the abuse of fentanyl, heroin and prescription drugs as “having risen to epidemic levels.”

Statistics show a slight increase – about 2.6 percent from 2014 to 2015 -- in deaths involving opioids classified as natural and semisynthetic. This includes such prescription painkillers as morphine and oxycodone.

Deaths involving methadone actually declined from 2014 to 2015.

To deal with the explosion of fentanyl- and heroin-related deaths, said the CDC, it will be important to increase the ability to deal with opioid disorders, from providing more treatment options to making it easier for people to find treatment.  

Providence has many resources for those confronting substance abuse – and for those who care for them. Here is a page of information about Providence’s Behavioral Health services, and here is a multistate map of our providers.

To learn more

We’ve written previously about the growing problem with opioid abuse:

Startling increase in opioid poisonings among young people »
Reduce your pain without painkillers »
What to do with unused opioids, prescription painkillers »
Prescription painkillers: 10 things you need to know »

Opioids popped back into the headlines because of the CDC’s latest update, “Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015,” published as a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The Department of Health and Human Services published a fact sheet on the toll on Americans. See “The Opioid Epidemic: By the Numbers.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse offers advice with its Q-and-A “What to Do if Your Adult Friend or Loved One Has a Problem with Drugs.” The institute offers a similar page of resources for parents who are concerned their children may be abusing drugs.

The DEA’s 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary discusses in detail the way fentanyl, heroin and prescription painkillers are distributed, as well as the deadly toll they take.

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