The US is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. If you or someone you know needs help, effective treatment is available and can save lives.
The opioid epidemic or opioid crisis is the rapid increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the United States and Canada beginning in the late 1990s and continuing throughout the first two decades of the 2000s.
Opioids are a diverse class of moderately strong painkillers, including oxycodone (commonly sold under the trade names OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and a very strong painkiller, fentanyl, which is synthesized to resemble other opiates such as opium-derived morphine and heroin.
The potency and availability of these substances, despite their high risk of addiction and overdose, have made them popular both as formal medical treatments and as recreational drugs. Due to their sedative effects on the part of the brain which regulates breathing, opioids in high doses present the potential for respiratory depression, and may cause respiratory failure and death.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “overdose deaths, particularly from prescription drugs and heroin, have reached epidemic levels.”iii Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved prescription opioids. From 1999 to 2008, overdose death rates, sales, and substance abuse treatment admissions related to opioid pain relievers all increased substantially.
By 2015, annual overdose deaths from heroin alone surpassed deaths from both car accidents and guns, with other opioid overdose deaths also on the rise. Drug overdoses have since become the leading cause of death of Americans under 50, with two-thirds of those deaths from opioids. In 2016, the crisis decreased overall life expectancy of Americans for the second consecutive year.
Overall life expectancy fell from 78.7 to 78.6 years. Men were disproportionally more affected due to higher overdose death rates, with life expectancy declining from 76.3 to 76.1 years. Women’s life expectancy remained stable at 81.1 years. In 2016, over 64,000 Americans died from overdoses, 21 percent more than the almost 53,000 in 2015. By comparison, the figure was 16,000 in 2010, and 4,000 in 1999.
While death rates varied by state, public health experts estimate that nationwide over 500,000 people could die from the epidemic over the next 10 years. In Canada, half of the overdoses were accidental, while a third was intentional. The remainder were unknown. Many of the deaths are from an extremely potent opioid, fentanyl, which is trafficked from Mexico. The epidemic cost the United States an estimated $504 billion in 2015. CDC director Thomas Frieden said that “America is awash in opioids; urgent action is critical.”
The crisis has changed moral, social, and cultural resistance to street drug alternatives such as heroin. In March 2017, Larry Hogan, the governor of Maryland, declared a state of emergency to combat the opioid epidemic, and in July 2017 opioid addiction was cited as the “FDA’s biggest crisis.” On October 26, 2017, President Donald Trump concurred with his Commission’s report and declared the country’s opioid crisis a “public health emergency.”
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