Overdose Deaths Have Reportedly Declined, But Data May Not Tell the Whole Story

The national opioid crisis has presented Americans with many dangers and fears — particularly because drug addiction and subsequent overdoses can often be traced back to the medications our physicians prescribe for the sake of healing. Currently, the U.S. holds over 45% of the global pharmaceutical market, and since prescription opioids have become more accessible in recent years, it’s no surprise that the nation has struggled to prevent these deaths. But while there may be some good news reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, experts point out that the data may not be as encouraging as you might think.

Addiction isn’t prejudiced, as is evidenced by the 72,224 drug overdose fatalities that occurred in 2017. That same year, roughly 25 Americans over the age of 55 died due to opioid overdoses each day. Since four out of five older people use one or more daily medications, it makes sense that seniors are both worried about opioids and admit misusing their own medications. Teenagers also have an increased risk of opioid abuse due to the availability of these prescriptions within their homes and the likelihood of being prescribed these drugs by their doctors or dentists for relatively minor health conditions.

Some areas have experienced greater rates of addiction and overdose than others. Ohio, for example, has one of the highest opioid death rates in the U.S., with 5,000 people dying each year. In 2017, Ohio health providers wrote a staggering 63.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people, while the nationwide average rate was only 58.6 prescriptions per 100 persons. While that might not seem like a huge difference, the state has had to take extreme action in an effort to decrease the death toll. Ohio is currently targeting prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors in a series of lawsuits, in the hopes that they’ll win large settlements and subsequently bankrupt the companies responsible for the problem.

Of course, taking aim at the pill makers is just one technique required to prevent future overdose deaths. Local, state, and federal organizations have made strides in reducing drug addiction, including measures to make naloxone (the opioid overdose antidote) more accessible and to limit the prescriptions of opioids. According to a recent report released by the CDC, it would seem that those efforts are finally having the desired effect. Preliminary data suggests that drug overdose deaths may have decreased by 5% during 2018, representing the first decline in overdose deaths since the 1990s and equating to hundreds or even thousands of lives preserved every year.

But while some might breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that the opioid epidemic might be starting to become less serious, it might be better to hold off. That’s because the CDC report is very much subject to change; because the data is preliminary, these figures could potentially change a lot before the final results are released in December. In 2017, the preliminary estimate was inaccurate by around 2,000 overdose deaths, which means that 2018’s overdose death count could actually end up being worse than the one released in 2017. What’s more, there’s a precedent for opioid deaths seeming to level off: between 2011 and 2012, a similar trend appeared — only to be completely derailed by synthetic opioids (like fentanyl) making their way onto the black market. As a result, overdose deaths actually soared from 41,500 during that time to 70,000 in 2017. That same issue could repeat itself here, as fentanyl surpassed prescription opioids as the most lethal overdose substance in 2015 and was involved in 32,000 overdose deaths last year. So even if we’re making headway with prescription opioids, dangerous synthetic forms of opioids are still a huge problem.

It’s also important to note that even if the overdose death decline is accurate, the country’s fatality rate due to overdoses is still shockingly high. With 68,000 drug overdose deaths in 2018, as reported by the CDC, this would still be the second worst year for overdoses in the nation’s history. And even though the federal government has devoted billions of dollars in funding to addiction treatment and other initiatives, far more money is needed to make significant headway on reversing the epidemic. For now, some are celebrating the small, perceived decline as a win — but there’s much more work to be done to keep the trajectory going in the right direction.

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