U.S. Deaths Due to Fentanyl Nearly Quadrupled in 5 Years

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By Steven Reinberg HealthDay Reporter

Health officials said Wednesday that the number of overdose deaths linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl in the United States has risen 279% between 2016 and 2021.

Investigators were looking for trends among drug-related deaths involving five of the most common opioids and stimulants: heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, and oxycodone.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate involving fentanyl, the most commonly implicated substance, has risen from 6 to 22 deaths per 100,000 people in just five years.

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The National Center for Health Statistics at the CDC said that this is a continuing public health issue in the United States.

Spencer's team discovered that the rate of deaths due to overdoses involving cocaine and methamphetamine also increased, while heroin and oxycodone deaths decreased.

The report, as well as many others in the last few years, highlight the devastation fentanyl causes to our country, with the number of deaths continuing to rise, said Pat Aussem. Associate vice president for clinical content development for consumers at the Partnership to End Addiction.

Fentanyl, and methamphetamine are the most deadly drugs for young people. Men were more affected by the death rate than women. Black Americans and Native Americans, however, were particularly hard hit.

Aussem said that these overdose deaths were caused by many factors. These include the misuse of prescription opioid painkillers and the use of heroin or fentanyl in combination with other drugs.

She said that counterfeit pills resembling Adderall, Xanax, Percocet, and other pain medication may contain fentanyl. This can cause an overdose if a person has no tolerance to the drug.

Aussem said that fentanyl was increasingly combined with xylazine (an animal tranquilizer called 'tranq') which can increase the risk of death and overdose.

Researchers at the CDC used data from National Vital Statistics System to conduct the study. Other findings include:

Overdose deaths caused by oxycodone have decreased by 21%.

Spencer explained that the CDC used death certificates to determine whether or not fentanyl was involved in overdoses from heroin, cocaine and oxycodone.

Spencer believes that the increase in overdose deaths related to fentanyl is due to an increasing supply of the substance flooding into the United States. She noted that it's unlikely this trend will reverse anytime soon, as overdose deaths are continuing to rise.

Aussem reported that the latest CDC tally is 107,000 in the 12-month time period ending August 2022. This is the equivalent of a plane crashing with almost 300 people on board every day. She added that we need a coordinated, focused response that embraces harm-reduction and evidence-based treatment.

Aussem stated that the inability to access addiction treatment and healthcare, as well as social and economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, and stigma surrounding addiction, contributes to drug overdose death.

What is needed now?

Aussem stated that a multifaceted strategy is needed to address the high overdose mortality rates in the United States. This includes increased screenings for mental health and drug use issues, as well as greater access to addiction treatment.

She also noted that health care providers need to be better trained and more willing than ever to treat those with substance abuse disorders.

Aussem also added that harm reduction programs are essential. Included in these services should be fentanyl test strips and xylazine exchange programs as well as overdose prevention education. Naloxone and other medications for opioid addiction must also be made more widely accessible.

She said that reducing the stigma around substance abuse disorders was also necessary to encourage people to talk about their concerns, and seek treatment. Also, educating families and equipping them to respond to the problem can lead to better results. They are usually the first ones to see the problem, and they can take action to promote safer use or connect to treatment.

Aussem says that test strips can identify fentanyl and help people avoid consuming drugs that may be contaminated.

She said that some states consider fentanyl testing strips to be drug paraphernalia. However, they can save lives. As xylazine is found in more drug supplies, Xylazine Test Strips will be required.

Aussem stated that another way to prevent overdose deaths is by making the nasal spray Naloxone (Narcan), widely available.

She said, "The FDA has approved naloxone for over-the counter purchase so that anyone can learn how to use it." It would be great to have it readily available in school, office and other places that people gather.

Aussem said that because many people overdose alone, an app such as Canary, or services such as the Never Use Alone Overdose Prevention Hotline (1-800-484-3731) can provide assistance when it's most needed.

She said that safe injection centers, like the ones in New York City, reduces the risk of overdosing as well as transmitting diseases such HIV and hepatitis.

Aussem added that center personnel have the chance to develop relationships, provide education, and offer other resources, often needed, which could lead to safer drug use and treatment.

The National Vital Statistics System of the CDC released a report on May 3.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information on fentanyl.

SOURCES: Merianne Spencer, MPH (health statistician), National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pat Aussem LPC (associate vice president for Consumer Clinical Content Development at Partnership to End Addiction); U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Report on Estimates for Drug Overdose Deaths involving Fentanyl Methamphetamine Cocaine Heroin and Oxycodone in the United States: 2021