Early 2016 Data Shows No End In Sight For Opioid Deaths, Led By Painkiller Fentanyl
The latest data surrounding the opioid epidemic reveals no sign of deceleration. Figures coming in for 2016 from many hard-hit cities and states show overdose deaths are reaching the highest numbers on record.
The painkiller fentanyl, a synthetic opioid with effects similar to heroin, continues to be taking a major role as a cause of death. And it’s no wonder – fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin, and even a small amount can send someone into an overdose. You may have heart of it – fentanyl is the drug responsible for the death of the artist Prince in April, 2015.
Fentanyl is a very powerful drug typically only used to treat cancer pain or as anesthesia for surgery. However, it’s not prescription drug diversion that is fueling this problem – street fentanyl is most often being made in clandestine labs in China on the black market.
A Look At State Data
Regarding fentanyl, particularly hard-hit areas include Ohio, Maryland, and New England. Ohio also experienced a rash of overdoses last year due to carfentanil, a large elephant tranquilizer that is 100 times more powerful than even fentanyl itself.
In just one Ohio county, Cuyahoga, the medical examiner has so far reported more than 500 deaths – and that number is not yet final.
Last month, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 33,000 deaths by opioids occurred in the U.S. last year. That was a 16% increase from 2014, and early tallies from 2016 do not look promising.
Also, early data in Pennsylvania appears that the state is on track to see a significant increase in 2016. According to the Philadelphia office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, overdose deaths for that city alone could exceed 900, versus just over 700 for 2015.
The most recent data for Maryland reveals nearly 1,500 overdose fatalities through September, 2016 – already surpassing data from the entirety of 2015. Indeed, Baltimore authorities state that the city, in combination with a long-term heroin trend, also has a rising fentanyl problem. Deaths jumped from January-September, 2016, to nearly 500. That’s a staggering 68% increase from 2015.
Availability of new data on overdose deaths varies from city to city, and state to state.
But according to the CDC, the same states with signs of higher overdose death rates from 2016 are among those of the 19 that also reported significant increases in 2015.
Last year’s overdose death data in New England is also starting to emerge, and higher rates are frequently being reported for 2016.
In recent years, New England has seen some of the highest numbers for fatal overdoses, and in some areas, fentanyl has become a singular killer set apart from heroin.
The New Hampshire Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released numbers last week that tallied around 160 deaths in 2016 from the painkiller fentanyl alone. That is compared with two deaths attributed only to heroin, and 19 deaths involved a heroin-fentanyl combination.
The office estimates that overdose deaths will increase by another 7% in 2016 from 2015, a year that eclipsed 2014 by 35%.
Massachusetts is also experiencing a fentanyl-led trend in overdose deaths.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, numbers counted through September, 2016 show that the state is on track for another increase in overdose deaths this year.
Rhode Island and Connecticut are also seeing an increase in deadly overdose last year from 2015, based on data collected so far. Maine reports 286 drug overdose fatalities through September, 2016, 14 more deaths than the entire year of 2015.
Farther to the south in North Carolina, the state health department reports that deaths related to the painkiller fentanyl increased at least 42% in 2016 from 2015 – but not all the numbers have been tallied.
What’s Being Done
The worsening opioid epidemic continue to be a formidable challenge for officials and lawmakers.
New federal legislation passed last month, however, which includes $1 billion in finding over the next two year to assist states with abuse prevention and treatment initiatives.
Also, some areas are offering leniency to drug users who go to the the police department to ask for help with addiction, such as the Angel Program in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In addition, many programs such as this use trained former addicts to help guide sobriety seekers through the recovery process.
And all but one state has implemented a prescription drug monitoring program, which allows doctors to check a patient’s history of prescriptions for addictive substances such as opioids and benzodiazepines. In many states, however, use of this program by doctors is not mandatory.
Finally, states are also working to expand access to medically assisted treatment, such as Suboxone, and to increase the accessibility of overdose reversal drug naloxone, including over-the-counter availability.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology