Drug overdose deaths soared by 10 percent in 2017 topping 70,000, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals.
It means that, in the last 20 years, the overdose death rate has increased nearly four-fold, from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to 21.7 last year.
Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine, was the driving culprit, alone accounting for a 45 percent increase in deaths between 2016 and 2017.
Those worst affected are white men aged 35 to 44 years old.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar insists the tide has turned and that statistics from next year will show a downturn.
But experts say that after legislation in several states set limits on prescription painkillers, users turned to illicit opioids like fentanyl to feed their addiction, worsening the already deadly epidemic.
Drug overdose deaths soared to 70,237 in 2017, a nearly 10 percent increase from the 63,632 deaths in 2016
Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine, was the driving culprit, alone accounting for a 45 percent increase in deaths between 2016 and 2017
Dr Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California San Francisco, told DailyMail.com that doctors have made efforts in recent years to reduce the amount of prescribed painkillers in circulation.
‘We know the rates to curb prescription pills are working because prescription rates and use have gone down,’ he said.
Over the last decade, a record number of prescriptions were dished out.
The report found that 20 US states and the District of Columbia had overdose death rates that were statistically higher than the national rate, which is three states fewer than 2016.
West Virginia saw the worst overdose death rates at 58.7 per 100,000 and was closely followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and Kentucky.
‘It speaks to the wide practice variation of opioid prescribing,’ Dr Marty Makary, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, told DailyMail.com
‘It can be culturally accepted in some places to prescribe 50 opioid pills for a minor procedure.’
But the overall national opioid prescribing rate has been declining since 2012 and, in 2017, the prescribing rate had fallen to the lowest it had been in more than 10 years.
OPIOIDS IN AMERICA: BY THE NUMBERS
Opioid prescriptions are going down across the US, but overdoses are not.
Last year, the rate of opioid overdose deaths hit a record high, with around 200 Americans dying every day, according to new figures, published by the DEA earlier this month.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar insists the tide has turned.
However, doctors warn the boom in prescriptions flooded the market with unused pills, some of which may have made it onto the black market.
An in-depth analysis of 2016 US drug overdose data shows that America’s overdose epidemic is spreading geographically and increasing across demographic groups.
Drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016 and increased to 70,237 in 2017.
Nearly two-thirds of these deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Overdose deaths increased in all categories of drugs examined for men and women, people ages 15 and older, all races and ethnicities, and across all levels of urbanization.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Secretary Azar said at the town hall at Liberty University that since January 2017, legal opioid prescription use is down more than 23 percent.
However, many people can’t afford prescription painkillers anyway and end up turning to street drugs.
Dr Makary says this particularly applied to the 35-44 age group, which had the highest death rate at 39 deaths per 100,000 people.
‘I have patients who can’t afford a $20 co-pay for their prescriptions so they’ll get $10 of heroin for more of a rush,’ he told DailyMail.com.
Users don’t just turn to heroin but fentanyl, a man-made opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine.
‘Heroin deaths and fentanyl deaths are at a high level,’ said Dr Ciccarone. ‘The question is are we driving the illicit opioid epidemic as we curb the prescription one? I say we are.’
The pattern of drugs involved in overdose deaths has changed in recent years, moving away from heroin and natural opioids to synthetic opioids including fentanyl.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, 68 percent of fentanyl and precursors used to make the drug originate in China
These factory-produced drugs, cheap and easy to make, are sold either directly to the US or via trafficking networks set up in Mexico.
But new legislation signed by President Donald Trump will have the US Postal Service screen overseas packages from China for fentanyl.
Some lawmakers argue that bill would stop certain areas of China from shipping any packages to the US. But most congressional leaders say the bill will do more good than harm.
‘Much of the fentanyl is still coming from China through the mail,’ Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a forum at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Wednesday.
‘About a pound of fentanyl can cause 150,000 deaths. That’s how fatal fentanyl is.’
Gunner Bundrick (pictured) and his friend Jake Morales, both 19, died earlier this month after they each took a pill they believed to be Percocet but was actually fentanyl
Dr Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, says that when state governments made efforts to curb prescription use, they did not account for foreseeable problems.
‘When you rapidly reduce the supply of these drugs, you have to anticipate that people still might need drugs for pain management because they’re addicted or for other reasons,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘The problems don’t simply go away when the pills do, people shift to other alternatives.’
The US had seen more and more drugs, including painkillers, heroin and cocaine, laced with fentanyl.
Earlier this month, two 19-year-old boys from Arizona died after they each took what they believed to be Percocet, a painkiller that contains the highly addictive oxycodone.
What they didn’t know was each pill may have contained up to 20 milligrams of fentanyl, enough to kill 10 men.
West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania had the highest death rates in 2017. Meanwhile, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota had the lowest death rates
So how do we tackle this problem? Doctors have a few suggestions.
‘We shouldn’t be focusing on the supply but rather fixing structural problems that are driving this: employment, economic instability and so on,’ said Dr Beletsky.
Dr Ciccarone says lowering prescribing rates is a good first step but there is still a great amount of work to be done.
He suggests more doctors employ harm reduction, which is using policies and programs reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs.
‘So, for example, working with active heroin users on ways to stay safer,’ Dr Ciccarone said.
‘People may not be ready to go to treatment so, in the meantime, they can be taught how to discern fentanyl from heroin, how to dilute, how to use it safely.’
He says the goal is to then encourage treatment as users wean themselves off of the drugs.
‘We then promote access to treatment because if they stay alive, the hope is they will rethink their drug use,’ said Dr Ciccarone.
‘If they die, then our treatment system has failed.’