Opioid overdoses claimed more lives in 2014 than in any previous year, and the total number of drug overdose deaths increased substantially from 2013 to 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In a recent article in the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC reported the opioid epidemic was getting worse.
“The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a press release. “The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities.”
Drug overdose deaths for all substances totaled 47,055 in 2014, an increase of 6.5 percent or 3,073 total deaths from the year before. That’s more than double the number of drug overdose deaths from 2000, the earliest year included in the CDC’s report. For context, more than one and a half times as many people died from drug overdose than from traffic accidents in 2014, according to the CDC.
Opioids accounted for the most drug overdose deaths in 2014, accounting for 61 percent of all deaths. Opioids are drugs derived from opium plants, including man-made prescription painkillers and illicit drugs like heroin.
Deaths from synthetic opioids other than methadone increased 80 percent in 2014. Deaths from natural and semisynthetic opioid pain relievers increased nine percent, and deaths from heroin increased 26 percent, according to the report.
The CDC linked the increase in deaths from synthetic opioids to a greater accessibility to fentanyl, a synthetic (man-made) opioid. Law enforcement reported an increase in illegally produced fentanyl in 2014 as well.
The five states with the greatest rate of death from drug overdose included:
Deaths from prescription painkillers like oxycodone (OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab) increased more than any other drug, up to 5,500 in 2014. That’s almost double the number of deaths in 2013, according to the CDC.
The CDC recognized two separate trends of steady increases in opioid pain reliever deaths and heroin deaths beginning in 2000. More Americans reportedly became addicted to painkillers in the last decade. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration forced companies to make the painkillers harder to abuse, rates of illicit heroin abuse soared because heroin causes euphoric effects similar to painkillers.
“To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders,” Frieden said. “This report also shows how important it is that law enforcement intensify efforts to reduce the availability of heroin, illegal fentanyl, and other illegal opioids.”
In order reduce the number of people becoming addicted to opioids, the CDC is developing guidelines to help doctors determine when an opioid prescription is necessary.
Doctors wrote enough opioid prescriptions for every American to own a bottle of pills in 2012. Even more alarmingly, painkiller sales grew 300 percent from 1999, but the number of Americans complaining of pain did not grow, according to the CDC.
The dilemma for most doctors centers on trying to relive a patient’s pain while minimizing the risk of patients becoming addicted. Doctors do not want to withhold medications from those who need it, but they don’t want to give patients access to highly addictive drugs if it isn’t necessary.
“What we want to just make sure is that doctors understand that starting a patient on an opiate is a momentous decision,” Frieden told the Washington Post. “The risks are addiction and death, and the benefits are unproven.”
The guidelines will focus on adult patients being treated for pain lasting longer than three months, not including palliative (end-of-life) care.
The goals are to help doctors:
“The bottom line is the opioid overdose epidemic has not abated and appears to have soared in 2014,” Frieden told The Washington Post. “It’s clear that we need to do more.”