The Department of Health and Human Services, reveals that drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States.
The statistics are staggering:
- Approximately 130 people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses
- Opioids killed more than 42,000 Americans in 2016, the most of any year on record
The information from the National Safety Council stated that for the first time in U.S. history, a person is more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a motor vehicle crash.
- The odds of dying accidentally from an opioid overdose have risen to 1 in 96
- The odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 103
Perhaps the most disturbing news is that experts predict the drug overdose epidemic is likely not only to continue but to increase. There is no doubt that this disturbing issue has become a public health crisis.
Trends: Causes and Sources of Opioid Overdoses
The first wave of the opioid crisis began with increased prescribing of opioids in the 1990s. Prescription opioid drug overdose deaths reached over 17,000 in 2017.
However, since 2016, the number of deaths from prescriptions has remained stable.
Currently, the source of opioid overdose deaths is even more sinister:
- The majority of overdose deaths comes from synthetic opioids (such as heroin and fentanyl)
- The most recent data suggests that synthetic opioids were involved in nearly 50 percent of opioid-related deaths
- Drug overdose deaths increased in all drug categories, but the largest increase occurred among deaths involving synthetic opioids including illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF)
What Are Synthetic Opioids?
Synthetic opioids drugs were originally developed by pharmaceutical companies to provide pain relief. They include medicines like methadone, tramadol, and fentanyl.
These powerful drugs mimic naturally occurring opioids such as codeine and morphine. They are extremely potent, which means only a small amount of the drug is required to produce the desired effect.
Man-made opioid drugs are used in very specific medical conditions such as with cancer and end-of-life palliative care. Their consequences can be severe, even fatal, and they are not to be used lightly.
Although synthetic opioids are manufactured by reputable companies, they are also produced illegally in labs and distributed through the illicit drug market. Non-pharmaceutical fentanyl is extremely dangerous. It is frequently referred to as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF).
On its own, fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. IMF is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product to increase the effect, which intensifies its potency and potential dangers. This may be done with or without the user’s knowledge, leading to an increased chance for an overdose.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that increases in synthetic opioid-involved deaths are being driven by increases in fentanyl-involved overdose deaths.
The Shocking Results: Prescription Drugs Not at Fault?
Now, a recent study not only predicts that opioid use and overdoses will increase, but that the attempts to restrict access to prescription opioids will only have a minimal impact on reducing overdose deaths.
Worse yet, the use of these illegal substances has reduced the potential impact of programs targeting prescription opioids.
Reducing Prescription Opioid Deaths: Not Enough
Great attempts had been made to reduce the availability and impact of opioids that are prescribed and misused.
An estimated two million Americans got hooked on physician-ordered painkillers with 259 million prescriptions written in a 12 month period.
So, in March 2016, the CDC released new federal guidelines aimed at putting controls on the widespread abuse of powerful opioid painkillers. The primary message from the CDC was that prescription painkillers should not be a first-choice for treating common ailments like back pain and arthritis. Opioids, according to the CDC, are not to be the first-line therapy.
- The CDC instructed doctors to prescribe painkillers only after considering non-addictive pain relievers, behavioral changes, and other options
- If (and only if) prescription opioids are needed, the CDC warned physicians that they should prescribe the lowest effective dose and that they should not be continued indefinitely
- Medical professionals were told to monitor the patient’s progress and only continue the opioids if they significantly improve the individual’s condition
This may have been a step in the right direction since, after 2016, the number of deaths from prescription opioids did not increase.
The New Data: A Worse Situation?
Currently, the latest data suggests that the rise in opioid is now driven by the use of illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl.
Specifically, the investigators revealed that the results from their study found that, “…since 2010 the crisis has shifted, with a leveling off of deaths due to prescription opioid overdoses and an increase in overdose deaths due to heroin.”
The use of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has significantly increased in the past five years. This has resulted in an increase in overdose deaths at the same time that the supply of prescription opioids is actually decreasing.
The Devastating Predictions
Based on this study’s analysis, the scientist produced some frightening predictions for the years 2016 to 2025:
- an estimated 700,000 people will die from an opioid overdose
- 80 percent will die from illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl
- approximately half of all new opioid users will begin with illicit rather than prescription drugs
- interventions to decrease the abuse of prescription opioids will only reduce overdose deaths by 3 to 5 percent
Based on these findings, it is apparent that focusing efforts on only the prescription opioid supply will not have a significant impact on reducing deaths.
In fact, the authors of the study firmly state, "If we rely solely on controlling the supply of prescription opioids, we will fail miserably at stemming the opioid overdose crisis. Additional policy interventions are urgently needed to change the course of the epidemic.”