CDC: U.S. Drug Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise

The report confirms that recent increases in drug overdose deaths are fueled by continued, sharp increases in deaths that involve synthetic opioids other than methadone, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

An in-depth analysis of 2016 U.S. drug overdose data by researchers at the CDC, released March 29, shows that the country's overdose epidemic is increasing across demographic groups and spreading geographically.

In 2016, 63,632 Americans were killed by drug overdoses, with nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of those deaths involving a prescription or illicit opioid. These deaths due to drug overdoses increased in all categories of drugs examined for men and women, people ages 15 and older, all ethnicities and races, and across all levels of urbanization.

The report confirms that recent increases in drug overdose deaths are fueled by continued, sharp increases in deaths that involve synthetic opioids other than methadone, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF). IMF is mixed into other substances, such as counterfeit opioid and benzodiazepine pills, heroin, and cocaine, likely contributing to increases in overdoses involving these substances.

"No area of the United States is exempt from this epidemic—we all know a friend, family member, or loved one devastated by opioids," said CDC Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat, M.D. "All branches of the federal government are working together to reduce the availability of illicit drugs, prevent deaths from overdoses, treat people with substance-use disorders, and prevent people from starting using drugs in the first place."

CDC's analysis was based on 2015-2016 data from 31 states and Washington, D.C. The data showed:

  • Across demographic categories, the largest increase in opioid overdose death rates was in males between the ages of 25 and 44.
  • Overall drug overdose death rates increased by 21.5 percent.
    • The overdose death rate from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) more than doubled, likely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
    • The prescription opioid-related overdose death rate increased by 10.6 percent.
    • The heroin-related overdose death rate increased by 19.5 percent.
    • The cocaine-related overdose death rate increased by 52.4 percent.
    • The psychostimulant-related overdose death rate increased by 33.3 percent.

Opioid death rates also differed across the states examined in this analysis:

  • Death rates from overdoses involving synthetic opioids increased in 21 states, with 10 states doubling their rates from 2015 to 2016.
    • New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Massachusetts had the highest death rates from synthetic opioids.
  • Fourteen states had significant increases in death rates involving heroin; Washington, D.C., West Virginia, and Ohio had the highest rates.
  • Eight states had significant increases in death rates involving prescription opioids. West Virginia, Maryland, Maine, and Utah had the highest rates.
  • Sixteen states had significant increases in death rates involving cocaine; Washington D.C., Rhode Island, and Ohio had the highest rates.
  • Fourteen states had significant increases in death rates involving psychostimulants; the highest death rates occurred primarily in the Midwest and Western regions. 

"Effective, synchronized programs to prevent drug overdoses will require coordination of law enforcement, first responders, mental health/substance-abuse providers, public health agencies, and community partners," said the report's lead author, Puja Seth, Ph.D.

The report highlights the continued need for public health and law enforcement to cooperate in preventing overdose deaths and taking action to protect people with opioid use disorder by expanding treatment capacity and naloxone distribution, support programs that reduce the harms of injecting opioids, improve coordination to reduce and improve detection of the illicit opioid supply, and improve opioid prescribing to reduce unnecessary exposure and prevent addiction. 

CDC's Overdose Prevention in States Initiatives include funding for state-level public health efforts in 45 states and Washington, D.C., to implement key prescription and illicit opioid surveillance and prevention activities.

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