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November 18, 2021

'A tragic milestone': U.S. drug overdose deaths surpass 100K in one year

Daily Briefing

    From April 2020 to April 2021, 100,306 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to CDC data—a 28% increase over the same time period last year, and the first time drug overdose deaths have surpassed 100,000 within a 12-month period.

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    Drug overdose deaths surpass 100,000

    The provisional data comes from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. It shows that drug overdose deaths were more common than deaths from car accidents and guns combined during the 12-month period ending in April 2021.

    Nearly 70% of the drug overdose deaths in that time period occurred in men between the ages of 25 and 54, the data shows.

    The states with the largest relative increases, where drug overdose deaths jumped by more than 50%, were California, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Vermont, and West Virginia.

    'These are numbers we have never seen before'

    President Joe Biden in a statement called the overdose numbers "a tragic milestone." He said his administration "is committed to doing everything in our power to address addiction and end the overdose epidemic."

    Katherine Keyes, an expert on drug misuse issues at Columbia University, said the death figure is "devastating," adding, "It's a magnitude of overdose death that we haven't seen in this country."

    "These are numbers we have never seen before," Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. The consequences are especially severe because most deaths occurred in people between the ages of 25 to 55, Volkow said.

    "They leave behind friends, family, and children, if they have children, so there are a lot of downstream consequences," she said. "This is a major challenge to our society."

    According to the data, the increase in overdose deaths was driven largely by synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, a drug that is 100 times as powerful as morphine, the New York Times reports.

    While some people may deliberately seek out fentanyl, others "may not have wanted to take it. But that is what is being sold, and the risk of overdose is very high," Volkow said. "Many people are dying without knowing what they are ingesting," she added.

    "If we had talked a year ago, I would have told you deaths are skyrocketing. But I would not have guessed it would get to this," Andrew Kolodny, medical director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management, said.

    What can be done

    Some experts have said the federal response to the overdose epidemic has been insufficient. They have called for more funding to provide better access to treatment, and for more treatment centers that offer same-day access.

    Another issue, according to Kolodny, is that physicians currently need federal permission to prescribe buprenorphine, a treatment for opioid use disorder.

    "If you really want to see deaths come down, you have to make it much easier for someone who is addicted to opioids to access treatment, particularly with buprenorphine," he said. "It has to be easier to get treatment than to buy a bag of dope."

    Administration officials on Wednesday said they would encourage states to pass laws making anti-overdose treatments such as naloxone more widely available to Americans.

    "I believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they didn't have access to naloxone," Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said. "Sadly, today that is happening across the country, and access to naloxone often depends a great deal on where you live." (Knutson, Axios, 11/17; Rabin, New York Times, 11/17; Stobbe, Associated Press, 11/18)

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