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Tox Tuesday: Overdose deaths may have ‘plateaued’ says U.S. health chief, but are still high

According to a major U.S. health chief, drug overdose deaths in the country have begun to plateau, after years of rapidly increasing death statistics.

Health secretary Alex Azar said last week that although there is still a long way to go in ending the opioid crisis, it’s possible that the recent numbers will mark a slowing down in the escalation of the situation. Still, far too many people are dying, and experts are working just as hard to fight the problem.

“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” he said.

Preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that death rates have slowed in the final months of 2017 and the early months of 2018, particularly for deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin. Deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines seem to be continuing to increase.

Source: CDC

It’s likely that more than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, according to the CDC. That’s a 16% increase from the previous year. Opioids played a role in nearly 48,000 of 2017’s deaths.

Azar, in a recent speech, listed a few reasons for the numbers, at least when it comes to overdoses specifically attributed to opioids.

Treatment with drugs like naltrexone and buprenorphine, used in conjunction with each other, is one possible contributor. Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it blocks the effects of opioids in the body and can reverse overdose, preventing death. Buprenorphine is a long half-life opioid medication used for treatment of opioid addiction and to help reduce cravings. These drugs are usually prescribed in addition to other supportive methods (such as group therapy) and counseling.

Improved access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone is another possible contributor. Naloxone is an opioid antagonist that, when injected, works within minutes to reverse the life-threatening effects of opioid overdose. Over the past year, doses of naloxone have been supplied to and even distributed to the public by schools, libraries, hospitals, churches, community centers and other institutions in an effort to save lives.

Greater awareness of the problem has likely helped as well. The public is more aware of the risk that they could develop an opioid addiction, and doctors have reported using greater care in determining when they do and don’t prescribe opioids to treat pain.

Vox notes reasons why we shouldn’t see Azar’s report as the end of the overdose epidemic:

  • The data is preliminary.
  • The short time frame plateau could just be a dip in the chart when you consider decades of increasing opioid use, which happened also in 2011 and 2012 before fentanyl hit the market.

Final data for 2018 will be available next year.

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