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US opioid epidemic claims 100,000 deaths in a single year

For the first time ever, deaths from drug overdoses surpassed 100,000 in a year, significantly more deaths than shooting and driving accidents combined.

Empty syringes in Berlin, Germany.
Hannibal HanschkeReuters

The US is in the midst of an unprecedented overdose epidemic, with more than 100,000 deaths recorded in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) latest annual review. This marks a 28.5 percent increase from last year's figure, and it is the first time there have been more than 100,000 deaths from drugs in a single year.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years of age, and the death rate continues to rise. It has surpassed those caused by car crashes, guns, flu and pneumonia, killing people at a rate higher than the HIV epidemic at its peak.

How did we get here?

The US Department of Health and Human Services explains how opioids have become so widespread. In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies told the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers, particularly commonly prescribed after surgeries. This led to the drugs being prescribed more and more often, leading to a significant number of patients becoming hooked on what is basically legal heroin.

When people had their prescriptions end, they turned to alternative measures to get their needs. This has created a black market for opioid substitutes, including heroin and fentanyl. The latter of which is particularly damaging, contributing to nearly two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths. It is a synthetic copy of heroin, with no natural base.

The CDC estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

What is being done?

In 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services announced a 5-Point Strategy To Combat the Opioid Crisis.

  • Improve access to prevention, treatment, and recovery support services,
  • Target the availability and distribution of overdose-reversing drugs,
  • Strengthen public health data reporting and collection,
  • Support cutting-edge research on addiction and pain,
  • Advance the practice of pain management.

President Biden made a similar pledge in his election campaign:

  • Hold accountable big pharmaceutical companies, executives, and others responsible for their role in triggering the opioid crisis,
  • Make effective prevention, treatment, and recovery services available to all, including through a $125 billion federal investment,
  • Stop over prescribing while improving access to effective and needed pain management,
  • Reform the criminal justice system so that no one is incarcerated for drug use alone,
  • Stem the flow of illicit drugs, like fentanyl and heroin, into the United States – especially from China and Mexico.

The president spoke about the overdose deaths before boarding Air Force One on Tuesday.

"We’re working to make health coverage more accessible and affordable for all Americans, so that more people who need care can get it. We are strengthening prevention, promoting harm reduction, expanding treatment, and supporting people in recovery, as well as reducing the supply of harmful substances in our communities. And we won’t let up", he said.

"To all those families who have mourned a loved one and to all those people who are facing addiction or are in recovery: you are in our hearts, and you are not alone. Together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic."

Whether these measures can be imposed is another story, as funding from big pharmaceutical companies has protected the industry from serious repercussions


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