New federal statistics suggest that the opioid epidemic in the United States is evolving as physicians crack down on the use of prescription painkillers: Fatal drug overdose deaths rose by 12% from 2016 to 2017, boosted by a wave of fatalities linked to illicit synthetic opioids like fentanyl that are now linked to an estimated 60% of opioid-related deaths.
“Overall, the overdose epidemic continues to worsen, and it has grown increasingly complex by coinvolvement of prescription and illicit drugs,” Lawrence Scholl, PhD, MPH, and his associates at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention wrote in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The new statistics provide more evidence that 2017 marked “a sharp increase in what has characterized as the third wave of the opioid epidemic,” said drug and health policy researcher Stephen Crystal, PhD, of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., in an interview. He was referring to a wave that experts believe started in 2013 amid a spike in U.S. overdose deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
The new report analyzes fatal drug overdose data from 2013 to 2017. According to the findings, the total number of those overdoses rose to 70,237 in 2017, up from 63,632 in 2016. The highest drug overdose death rates in 2017 were in West Virginia, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.
Some statistics did not change much from 2016 to 2017: About two-thirds of the drug overdose deaths were linked to opioids in both years, and the death rate of cases linked to prescription drugs and heroin remained steady. (Death rates in the report were age adjusted.)
However, the percentage of fatal overdose cases linked to synthetic opioids grew 45% from 2016 to 2017. Overall, 60% of opioid-related fatal overdoses in 2017 involved synthetic opioids.
The report identifies increases in several areas from 2016 to 2017. Opioid-related drug overdose deaths among black people rose by 25%, and an analysis of data from 34 states and the District of Columbia found the highest increases in death rates in North Carolina (29%), Ohio (19%), and Maine (19%).
In regard to deaths linked to synthetic opioids specifically, the highest death rates in 2017 were in West Virginia (37 per 100,000), Ohio (32 per 100,000), and New Hampshire (30 per 100,000).
“Part of what we’re seeing in these increased numbers are individuals who have pain, can’t get prescribed opioids, and turn to street drugs,” Dr. Crystal said, adding that “abruptly cutting patients off is not good, and leaving patients with a lot of untreated pain is not good. If people are going to be discontinued [from opioids] or have their doses reduced, the taper needs to be done very slowly and carefully.”
Synthetic opioids were not the only drugs that are driving up fatal overdoses, as the death rates of cases linked to cocaine and psychostimulants (such as methamphetamine) jumped by more than a third in 2017.
“The most important thing these numbers are telling me is that it’s becoming more and more attractive to drug dealers to put fentanyl in the heroin, cocaine, and other drugs they sell,” Dr. Crystal said. “When that happens, dependence on street drugs becomes much more deadly. It’s almost impossible to get the dose right. Every time you shoot up, you’re taking a chance that you’ll overdose.”
The report had limitations, including the fact that details about drug use were missing from 12% (2016) and 15% (2017) of death certificates in fatal overdose cases. By state, the percentages of those death certificates that included drug information ranged from as little as 55% to 99%.
There’s some possible positive news: The report points to preliminary data from 2018 suggesting that the number of annual drug overdose deaths may be leveling off – although it says more analysis is needed to confirm the trend.
Dr. Crystal, however, is not celebrating. “I don’t see this as a good news story, really,” he said, adding that there’s “a little too much of people patting themselves on the back” because they’re proud of cutbacks in opioid prescriptions.
“This doesn’t have to do with the huge number of people who got started with opioids years ago” and are now at risk of using street drugs, he said. “We haven’t engaged that population at the rate we need to. And flattening out at 70,000 drug overdoses a year is not a good news story.”
Dr. Crystal reported no relevant disclosures.
SOURCE: Scholl L et al. MMWR. 2019 Jan 4;67(5152):1419-27.