US deaths from opioid overdoses surpass those from Vietnam War

Written by By Jari McLean, CNN

In 2015, more Americans died from drug overdoses than were killed in the entire Vietnam War, according to a sobering new report.

“This is a new American crisis: More Americans die of drug overdoses every year than died during the entire Vietnam War in the 1960s,” said Dr. Steven McCarroll, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the lead author of the report.

As of 2015, 42,404 Americans died of drug overdoses. For comparison, the total number of American deaths from all causes — not just firearms — during the Vietnam War during the same period was about 39,000.

Those numbers became clearer earlier this week, when the government released its annual National Drug Threat Assessment for 2017. The report is compiled by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) Field Division, which last year launched its National Drug Threat Assessment Team.

In addition to stating that overdoses from prescription opioids, heroin and cocaine had risen dramatically in recent years, the report noted that more than 90% of the drugs used to kill Americans in 2016 had previously been prescribed for medical purposes.

According to McCarroll, the facts that the government report unveils are “impressive.”

“By any standard, we’re in a big epidemic. It’s reached epidemic proportions,” he said.

The report comes during a tumultuous time in the country’s opioid crisis, which first made headlines in 2013. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 142 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, and at least 50% of all drug overdoses involve a prescription opioid.

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The impact on U.S. taxpayers is also significant. Last year, the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that it spent $3.95 billion on researching and treating the crisis, or almost $4.7 billion if you include other government agencies.

McCarroll said his university’s study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, tracks the deaths through the electronic records of 36 U.S. states. Using that method, his team found that between 2004 and 2015, the number of deaths each year due to drug overdoses had risen from 48,257 to almost 86,000.

What’s behind the alarming rise in overdose deaths? McCarroll believes the national opioid crisis is being exacerbated by a flurry of new opioid prescriptions. Those involved in the production and distribution of opioid medications have increased dramatically over the past several years, he said.

“The easiest solution is to deter abuse by limiting the supply of opioids to doctors, and there are several states that are experimenting with prescriptions of only a certain length or length of period of time,” he said. “For example, Florida limits doctors to five days of a 90-day supply.”

The harmful effects of opioids are even more prevalent with the introduction of fentanyl, a drug that is roughly 100 times more potent than morphine.

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“I suspect there’s been an increase in physicians writing prescriptions for fentanyl,” McCarroll said. “People who take fentanyl are much more likely to overdose than someone taking a prescribed opioid.”

Fentanyl is also gaining notoriety in the fight against the opioid crisis. In recent months, deadly overdoses have risen across the country. A recent report by The Washington Post revealed that 2017 was on track to be the deadliest year for U.S. heroin overdoses since the numbers started being recorded in 1980. Heroin has become more readily available in recent years, largely due to the proliferation of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“Fentanyl, combined with heroin, seems to be the primary culprit for overdoses,” McCarroll said. “And fentanyl continues to make its way across our borders, including Mexico, and end up in our country.”

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