The death toll from heroin overdoses has surpassed the annual rate of gun homicides in the US for the first time. In 2007, gun homicides outnumbered opiate overdoses 5-1, and a shift this drastic is alarming news for public health officials, who are trying to manage the devastating impact of the addiction crisis. The rising number of drug overdoses has contributed an overall decline in US life expectancy, which is the first time this statistic has dropped since 1993.
According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), deaths from heroin overdoses surged in 2015, with 2,000 more fatalities than in 2014. Deaths from synthetic and natural opioid derivatives, like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and fentanyl, are also on the rise, up by a staggering 75% from 2014.
The explosion of prescription painkiller use in the late 90s and early 2000s led many people to become dependent on these powerfully addictive drugs. When state and local officials attempted to crack down on prescription painkiller abuse by making it harder to get a prescription, many people were forced to turn to heroin and illicitly manufactured synthetic opiates bought on the street, which authorities believe has caused the surge in heroin use and overdose deaths in recent years.
To further illustrate the magnitude of opiate addiction in the US, the CDC reports that 2015 was the first time since the late 90s that heroin deaths exceeded overdoses on traditional painkillers. The CDC noted that many overdoses involve a combination of heroin and prescription painkillers, which confirms the idea that those with opiate addiction often resort to using multiple forms of both legal and illegal drugs throughout the course of their addiction. The highly lethal combination of heroin and prescription drugs is the leading cause of overdose fatalities.
Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, stated that one of the biggest contributing factors to the enduring opiate crisis is that many people fail to get timely and adequate drug treatment. Effective substance use treatment can change the course of an addict’s life and prevent the devastating consequences of overdose. In light of the need for more treatment options, Congress recently passed a $1 billion funding expansion for addiction treatment services to try to combat the overdose crisis.
However, even when treatment resources are available, officials say that the stigma surrounding substance use disorders causes many people to keep their addictions a secret, which can put them at risk for becoming part of the growing statistic of overdose fatalities. The best option for anyone who fears they are at risk for opiate addiction is to get help as soon as possible. Treatment experts can ease the pain of detox, manage potentially life-threatening complications of addiction, and help set a course for long-term recovery.