Opoid Epidemic: ‘It’s even worse than it looks’

The national opioid epidemic escalated in 2016, driven by an unprecedented surge in deaths from fentanyl  and other synthetic opiates, according to new data released December 21 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 42,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2015.  The number of people fatally overdosing on fentanyl and other synthetic opioids more than doubled, from 9,580 in 2015 to 19,413 in 2016.  Deaths due to heroin were up nearly 20 percent, and deaths from other opiate painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, were up 14 percent.

Overdose deaths from all drugs, including non-opioids, stood at 63,000 last year, an increase of 21 percent over the 2015 number.

“It’s even worse that it looks,” said Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University.  Given that research has shown that official figures could be low, the true number of opioid deaths increased by 20 percent or more, “we could easily be at 50,000 opioid deaths last year,” Humphreys said.   “This means that even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”

“My guess is that when all of the data is in that the 2017 trend line will be at least as steep as for 2016, if not steeper,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the morality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics.  “We’ve gone well beyond the AIDS epidemic now,” said Anderson.

While drug mortality has been increasing among all age groups since 1999, it’s currently highest among those age 25 and 54.  Overdose rate for all drugs were roughly 35 cases per 100,000 individuals among all three groups in 2016, compared to 12 deaths per 100,000 for those under 24 and 6 deaths per 100,000 among seniors age 65 and up.  Men (26 deaths per 100,000) are about twice as likely to die of a drug overdose as women (13 per 100,000).

At the state level, West Virginia stands alone as the epicenter of overdose mortality in the U. S., with 52 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2016.  The two next-high states, New Hampshire and Ohio, saw 39 deaths per 100,000.