For the first time in over three decades, the US in 2018 recorded a drop in the number of drug overdose deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control’s annual survey. The decline came almost entirely from a dip in the number of deaths associated with prescription opioid painkillers—the drugs responsible for igniting the national opioid epidemic over two decades ago. Despite the decrease, more than 68,000 people died from overdoses in 2018, exceeding the country’s peak annual deaths from car crashes, AIDS or guns.
The decrease of almost five percent was heralded as a reason for cautious optimism. It seemed to suggest that interventions to curtail the opioid crisis were working. Investments in treatment programs and public awareness, as well as new rules that limit the amount of opiates a doctor can prescribe in some states, seem to be contributors to the decrease.
Another notable factor in the reduction of people dying from overdoses was the surge in the availability and use of the opiate-blocker Narcan, also known by its generic name, Naloxone. The spray can revive people who have overdosed and is responsible for saving an untold number of lives. Last year, the naloxone spray market was $178 million. By 2026, it is expected to reach almost one billion.
The Next Phase of the Opioid Crisis
Unfortunately, the stats reveal both good news and bad.
As the overall rise of overdoses fell, the deaths associated with the synthetic opioid fentanyl continued to climb. In the last five years, fentanyl and its analogs have killed as estimated 95,000 people, around two-thirds of all opioid deaths.
Fentanyl, and other super-powerful synthetic opioids like it, has sometimes been considered part of the “third wave” of the national epidemic. The first wave came with a surge of patients prescribed painkillers like Oxycodone. As demand grew, the price of prescription opioids rose. Patients who had become unwittingly addicted turned to a cheaper option: heroin – the second wave. Eventually, as people developed a tolerance to the drug, dealers and users alike sought out options that were cheaper and stronger. Enter fentanyl.
Though many people specifically seek out fentanyl because of its potency, many who overdose consumed it when it was cut into other drugs—heroin, most frequently, but also cocaine, meth, and pills. Countless people who overdosed had no intention of consuming fentanyl, as relatively naïve drug users and experienced users alike were caught unaware by the drug’s fatal punch.
This integration of fentanyl into other drug supplies has continued to contribute to the incredibly high overdose stats—despite the five percent drop, the epidemic is still so severe that it has actually reduced life expectancy in the US.
Alarmingly, the government has largely failed to take significant action on the fentanyl issue. Two bills that were introduced in Congress in previous years failed to even get a hearing. According to the Washington Post, it took until 2017 for legislators to pass a fentanyl-specific bill—years after they had received dire warnings about the drug. In that time, more than 67,000 Americans had died from overdoses of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
But as the overdose stats show—interventions like treatment can save lives. The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) specifically cites the need for more addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery services as core components in their five-part plan to cut overdose deaths
If you or someone you care about is ready to get help, reach out today.