CDC: Deaths Caused by Heroin and Prescription Painkillers Continue to Rise
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December 28, 2015

Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that deaths caused by prescription pain medication and heroin overdoses continue to increase at an alarming rate.

A CDC analysis found that deaths from overdoses on prescription opioids and heroin hit record levels in 2014, with an alarming 14 percent increase in just one year. Between 2000 and 2014 nearly half a million Americans died from drug overdoses with sharp increases in the past five years.

Prescription medications like oxycodone and hydrocodone continue to be involved in more overdose deaths than any other opioid type. These deaths increased by 9 percent – 813 more deaths – from 2013 to 2014.

Increases in both prescription opioids and heroin deaths are the biggest driver of the drug overdose epidemic, says the CDC report. Heroin overdoses have tripled since 2010 and deaths involving illegally made fentanyl, which is often added to or sold as heroin, are also on the upswing.

"The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming," CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a written statement.

No demographic group seems to be particularly targeted by the epidemic. Overdose deaths are up in both men and women, in non-Hispanic whites and blacks, and in adults of nearly all ages. Rates of overdoses, however, were highest among five states: West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio.

North Carolina saw a 7 percent increase – or about 1,000 deaths -- from 2013 to 2014, which the study found to be statistically insignificant. A map of drug overdose deaths by state can be found here.

The connection between heroin and prescription pain killers has been apparent for some time now. People who became addicted to prescription pain killers in the past year is the strongest risk factor for starting to use heroin, which is stronger, cheaper, and doesn't require a doctor's prescription. Heroin related deaths rates increased 26 percent between 2013 and 2014, totaling about 10,575 deaths in 2014.

Stopping the Epidemic

The CDC report points to four ways to prevent future overdose deaths:

  1. Limit initiation into opioid misuse and addiction. Opioid pain reliever prescribing has quadrupled since 1999. Providing health care professionals with additional tools and information—including safer guidelines for prescribing these drugs—can help them make more informed prescribing decisions.
  2. Expand access to evidence-based substance use disorder treatment—including Medication-Assisted Treatment—for people who suffer from opioid use disorder.
  3. Protect people with opioid use disorder by expanding access and use of naloxone—a critical drug that can reverse the symptoms of an opioid overdose and save lives.
  4. State and local public health agencies, medical examiners and coroners, and law enforcement agencies must work together to improve detection of and response to illicit opioid overdose outbreaks to address this emerging threat to public health and safety.