The opioid epidemic

Data published in January 2016 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), showed an alarming increase in drug overdose fatalities in the U.S. According to the study “Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths - United States, 2000-2014”, between 2013 and 2014 drug overdose deaths increased by 6.5%.

As illustrated in the following figure, several states had statistically significant increases in the mentioned period (red states). Those with the highest increase rates were North Dakota (125%), New Hampshire (73.5%) and New Mexico (20.8%).

The main factor explaining this increase is the rise in opioid overdose deaths, including the use of natural and/or semisynthetic opioids, synthetic opioids, methadone, and heroin. The study shows that overdose deaths caused by the consumption of these substances reached an alarming 14% increase in 2014 and opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths during that year.  

As shown in the figure below, the death rate from synthetic opioids (including illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioid pain relievers) increased 80%, the death rate from heroin increased 26% and the death rate from natural and semisynthetic opioid (the most commonly prescribed pain relievers) increased 9%. According to the CDC, nearly all aspects of the opioid epidemic worsened in 2014.

Moreover, Kimberly Kindy and Dan Keating from The Washington Post have exposed the danger of increased drug combinations. Middle age white Americans, particularly white women, are dying prematurely because of this increase in opioids overdoses, but also from anti-anxiety drugs or benzodiazepines, which are usually prescribed together. Both drugs work depressing the central nervous system, easing pain and anxiety. Combining these with alcohol, which has the same effect, can be lethal.

According to the CDC, some key prevention strategies include encouraging safer prescription of opioid pain relievers, expanding availability and access to antidotes for opioid-related overdoses and increasing access to medication-assisted treatment in combination with behavioral therapies.

Daniela Oliva

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