‘Alarming’ drug overdose deaths in US hit record high of over 47,000 – CDC

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said drug overdoses hit record levels in 2014, with over 47,000 deaths – a nearly 7 percent increase in just one year. From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from drug poisoning.

The health agency said the US is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, which have increased by 137 percent since 2000, including a 200 percent increase in deaths involving opioids, according to data published Friday in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a press release on the report’s findings.

The data showed the opioid overdose epidemic has progressively worsened over the past 15 years, driven by use of prescription pain relievers and a recent surge in illicit opioid deaths involving heroin.

The report found that in 2014, a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred, a 6.5 percent increase from the year before. Of those deaths, there was a 14 percent increase from opioid use overdoses involving painkillers and heroin. Overall, deaths occurred most frequently for both sexes from the ages of 25 to 44, and for whites and blacks over 55 years old. Most deaths were recorded in the Northeastern, Midwestern and Southern regions of the US.

The data revealed that the biggest jump in deaths resulted from the use of synthetic opioids such as Fentanyl and Tramadol. There was an 80 percent increase in such deaths (5,500 total). Other opioids like methadone accounted for 9 percent of deaths, while heroin was responsible for 26 percent.

The use of synthetic opioids, like illicitly manufactured fentanyl, coincided with reports from law enforcement warning of increased availability of the drug. Five jurisdictions – Florida, Maryland, Maine, Ohio and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – reported sharp increases in Fentanyl seizures.

Fentanyl is used during surgery as an anesthesia and is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, or 30 to 50 times more potent than pharmaceutical grade, 100-percent-pure heroin, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

“Heroin is bad enough, but when you lace it with fentanyl, it’s like dropping a nuclear bomb on the situation,” Mary Lou Leary, a deputy director in the White House’s office of National Drug Control Policy, told NPR. “It’s so, so much more dangerous.”

A variant called acetyl fentanyl is being manufactured in clandestine labs, and while it is slightly less potent than fentanyl, two milligrams or less – a dose the size of a few grains of salt – can kill.

“If you make the right mix, everyone loves your stuff,” Angelo Alonzo, a former drug addict, explained to NPR. “But you know, that right mix might kill some people, too.”

The CDC said the problem is that death certificate data doesn’t distinguish between illicitly manufactured fentanyl and prescription fentanyl. Some opioid deaths involved more than one type of opioid, such as a fentanyl-heroin mix.

“The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorder,” said the CDC’s Frieden in a press release. “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.”

The report said there were approximately one and half times more drug overdose deaths in the US in 2014 than deaths from motor vehicle crashes.