Deaths from heroin and other opioids continue to skyrocket, according to new data released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The 33,091 killed by opium-derived narcotics last year set a new high-water mark for such deaths. It represents more than a 15 percent uptick when compared with the 28,647 overdose deaths of 2014. More people were killed by heroin last year than by gun homicides, with 12,990 heroin overdose deaths, a 23 percent upswing from the previous year.
“The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen,” Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the CDC, said in a White House statement. “Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems.”
Deaths caused by synthetic opioids other than methadone surged last year, up 73 percent, to 9,580. That was fueled largely by overdoses from the powerful opioid analgesic fentanyl, which killed singer-songwriter Prince in April. Research has indicated that much of the fentanyl involved in those deaths was manufactured illegally overseas, rather than prescribed by a doctor. The White House has looked to cut off that illegal trade, establishing enhanced measures in conjunction with the Chinese government to stem the supply flowing into the U.S.
Meanwhile, overdose deaths tied to prescription painkillers like Vicodin or Oxycontin, rose less severely, up 4 percent to 17,536 last year. The administration believes those numbers suggest, perhaps, that efforts to more safely prescribe narcotics may be taking hold.
Data also illustrate the critical need to bolster the availability of both medication-assisted treatments for opioid-use disorder, alongside naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug. Congress just last week passed legislation on the Hill, which will begin to trickle money to the provider community to aid in that fight, notes Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy.
“The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country — in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance-use disorder treatment,” he said in a statement. “That is why the president has called since February for $1 billion in new funding to expand access to treatment. This week, Congress finally acted on the president's request. The administration will work to get this new funding out to states as quickly as possible to make sure that every American who wants treatment for an opioid-use disorder is able to get it.”
The passage of the 21st-Century Cures Act follows several steps the White House has already taken earlier this year to combat the epidemic, the release notes, including issuing new guidelines for safer prescribing, awarding funding for 271 new community health centers across the country, and more than doubling the patient limit for practitioners prescribing buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction.
In its own statement, the nation’s largest physician group said it is “deeply concerned” by this latest data, but it believes Cures Act funding will be helpful in its efforts to help stem the tide of heroin- and painkiller-related deaths.
“The new funding that will be provided by the Cures legislation that Congress passed this week holds promise for helping to reduce the treatment gap for patients with substance use disorders,” Patrice Harris, M.D., chair of the American Medical Association board of trustees said. “The AMA urges state and federal policymakers to work closely with physicians and others on the front lines of this epidemic to ensure that this promise is realized. Broader implementation of evidence-based treatment programs is needed to prevent opioid-related harm and death and to support patients with substance-use disorders in leading satisfying and productive lives.”