Conference Coverage

Drug-related deaths continue to rise in United States



– Drug-related deaths in America are rising faster than ever.

Rear Adm. Wanda D. Barfield, MD shared recent data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics on people aged 15 years and older at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. Between 1999 and 2016, for example, the number of drug overdose deaths rose more than threefold, from 6.1/100,000 standard population in 1999 to 19.8/100,000 in 2016. For males, the rate increased from 8.2/100,000 in 1999 to 26.2/100,000 in 2016. For females, the rate increased from 3.9/100,000 in 1999 to 13.4/100,000 in 2016.

a partial photo of a doctor writing on a prescription pad Fuse/Thinkstock

Dr. Barfield, director of the division of reproductive health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that in 2016, the NCHS also found that 22 states and the District of Columbia had drug overdoses that were significantly higher than the national average. The states with the highest number of drug overdose deaths were the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia while the states with the lowest observed rates were Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas.

“Many of these drug overdose deaths are linked to opioids, but not exclusively,” Dr. Barfield said. “In the past, the overall opioid-related overdose deaths were mainly attributed to commonly prescribed opioid medications. However, in recent years, we’re seeing more deaths due to illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.”

The NCHS found that the age-adjusted rate for drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone doubled from 2015 to 2016, and that drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone increased from 0.3/100,000 in 1999 to 6.2/100,000 in 2016. The rate increased an average of 18% per year from 1999 to 2006, remained steady from 2006 to 2013, but increased by 88% per year from 2013 to 2016. At the same time, drug overdose deaths involving heroin increased from 0.7/100,000 in 1999 to 1/100,000 in 2010, to 4.9/100,000 in 2016.

According to Dr. Barfield, the spike in opioid use since 1999 stems directly from increased prescribing rates. “In 2015, the number of opioids prescribed was enough so that every American could be medicated around the clock for 3 weeks,” she said. “In addition to the number of prescriptions, the average day’s supply of prescription opioids increased from 2006 to 2015, from 13.3 days in 2006 to 17.7 days in 2015.” What’s more, a recent CDC Vital Signs found that the amount of opioids prescribed per person varied widely among U.S. counties in 2015. “The wide variation among counties suggests a lack of consistency among providers when prescribing opioids,” Dr. Barfield said. “It’s concerning, as higher opioid prescribing puts patients at risk for addiction.”

At the same time, opioid overdose ED visits continue to rise. Data from the CDC’s National Syndromic Surveillance Program found that from July 2016 to September 2017, opioid overdose ED visits increased by 30% for men, by 24% for women, and for all adult age groups (31% among those aged 25-34 years, 36% among those aged 35-54 years, and 32% among those aged 55 years and older).

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