In 2017, over 70 thousand drug overdose-related deaths took place in the United States, with nearly 50 thousand involving some sort of opioid. Coinciding with this record high, a public health emergency was issued in response to the United States opioid epidemic. This designation in 2017 followed the country’s growing number of citizens misusing opioids along with the realization that drugs were becoming more and more deadly.
Today, drug overdose continues to be the leading cause of death for adults under 55, with 87 percent of drug overdoses happening unintentionally. This increase in drug-related deaths has become so substantial that the epidemic is now hugely contributing to the overall decline of life expectancy in the United States.
Looking all the way back to the late 1990s, many pharmaceutical companies were quick to reassure medical communities that there were little to no risks associated with prescribing opioid pain relievers to patients. These companies claimed that the addictive qualities of prescription opioids were very low, which put healthcare professionals under the impression that they could safely prescribe these drugs at higher rates.
Years of over prescribing led to rampant misuse in the United States, as citizens began not only finding themselves addicted to prescription opioids, but also seeking out non-prescription opioids. This widespread occurrence shed light on the addictive qualities opioids possessed, and the drastic impact such prescription drugs could have on a nation.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a five-point strategy to combat the United States opioid epidemic, stressing the importance of:
Since these implemented efforts were made in mid 2017, the opioid epidemic in America has seen some improvement. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), overdose deaths from heroin, prescription opioid pills, and methadone have all fallen over the past year, while overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids have significantly risen.
Though the U.S. has seen a steady decline in overdose deaths in some areas of the crisis, fatalities tied to synthetic opioids represent the ongoing evolution of this epidemic. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than heroin or cocaine, continues to be a major concern. Fentanyl was said to be responsible for roughly 30,000 overdose deaths in 2017, an increase of more than 45 percent from the previous year. While deaths resulting from synthetic opioids continue to rise, the CDC reports that their mortality rate seems to have decelerated in mid 2018.
The patterns surrounding the United States opioid epidemic appear to be shifting towards more potent drugs, which has put people suffering from opioid use disorder at a much higher risk of a fatal overdose. Continued research and education are vital to understanding the shifts taking place within the nations continued opioid epidemic. Though there is still a long way to go, the slight decline in drug overdose deaths in 2018 appears to be a step in the right direction.