Although the rise in drug overdose deaths in the US appears to have stalled, experts say better treatment and counseling could begin to slow the trend, though they aren’t confident.
Drug overdose deaths in the United States increased slightly last year after two large increases during the pandemic.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials say the numbers have stagnated for most of the past year, but they’re not sure if that means the worst overdose epidemic in the US is finally coming to an end. top, or it will be like previous plateaus that were followed by new increases in deaths.
“The fact that it seems to be flattening out, at least nationally, is encouraging,” said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University professor of epidemiology whose research focuses on drug use. “But these numbers are still extraordinarily high. We should not suggest that the crisis is by any means over.”
An estimated 109,680 overdose deaths occurred last year, according to figures released Wednesday by the CDC. That’s about 2% more than the 107,622 deaths recorded in 2021, but nothing like the 30% increase seen in 2020 and 15% in 2021.
While the overall national number was relatively stable between 2021 and 2022, there were drastic changes in several states: 23 reported fewer overdose deaths, one, Iowa, saw no change, and the rest continued to rise.
Eight states—Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—reported significant declines in overdose deaths of around 100 or more compared to the previous calendar year.
Some of those states had some of the highest overdose death rates during the epidemic, which Keyes said could be a sign that years of focused work to address the problem is paying off.
State officials cited several factors for the decline, including social media and health education campaigns to warn the public about the dangers of drug use, more addiction treatment such as telehealth, and wider distribution of the anti-inflammatory drug naxalone. the overdoses.
Also, the stigma that prevented drug users from seeking help, and some doctors and police officers from helping them, is diminishing, said Dr. Joseph Kanter, a state health official for Louisiana, where overdose deaths fell 4 percent last year. last year.
“We are catching up and the tide is turning, slowly,” said Kanter, whose state has one of the highest overdose death rates in the country.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, the abuse of prescription opioid painkillers was to blame for deaths before a gradual shift to heroin, which in 2015 caused more deaths than prescription painkillers or other drugs.
A year later, the deadlier fentanyl and its close cousins became the biggest killer drugs.
Last year, the majority of overdose deaths continued to be linked to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. Around 75,000, 4% more than the previous year. There was also an 11% increase in deaths related to cocaine and a 3% increase in deaths related to methamphetamine and other stimulants.
Overdose deaths are often attributed to more than one drug. Some people take multiple drugs, and officials say cheap fentanyl is increasingly being used in other drugs, often without the knowledge of buyers.
Research by Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that “there appears to be some substitution,” with a number of illicit drug users turning to methamphetamine or other options to try to stay away from fentanyl and drugs contaminated with fentanyl.
Ciccarone believes that overdose deaths will eventually decrease. He cited improvements in addiction counseling and treatment, better availability of naloxone and legal action that led to revenues of more than $50 billion, money that will need to be made available to bolster overdose prevention.
“We’ve invested a lot in this 20-year problem of opioid overdoses,” he said. “We must be bending the curve.”
However, he expressed some caution, saying “we’ve been here before.”
For example, in 2018, when overdose deaths fell 4% from the previous year, to around 67,000, then-President Donald Trump declared, “We are stopping the opioid epidemic.”
But overdose deaths then increase
on to a record 71,000 in 2019, and then skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic to 92,000 in 2020 and 107,000 in 2021.
Lockdowns and other pandemic-era restrictions isolated people with drug addictions and made it harder to access treatment, experts say.
Keyes believes the 2022 numbers didn’t get worse in part because isolation eased as the pandemic abated. But there may be problems ahead, others say, such as increased detection of the veterinary tranquilizer xylazine in illicit drugs and proposals to reduce things like the prescription of addiction drugs through telehealth.
“What the last 20 years of this overdose crisis have taught us is that this really is a moving target,” Keyes said. “And when you think you’ve got it under control, sometimes the problem can morph into new and different ways.”