Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year, according to the first governmental account of nationwide drug deaths to cover all of 2016. It’s a staggering rise of more than 22 percent over the 52,404 drug deaths recorded the previous year — and even higher than The New York Times’s estimate in June, which was based on earlier preliminary data.
Drug overdoses are expected to remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, as synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl and its analogues — continue to push the death count higher. Drug deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by an upturn in deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Together they add up to an epidemic of drug overdoses that is killing people at a faster rate than the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak.
How the crisis started
Opioids are drugs that stimulate the brain’s opiate receptors. Some are made from opium and some are completely synthetic. In the U.S., the most commonly prescribed opioids are hydrocodone and oxycodone, which are classified as semi-synthetic because they are synthesized from opium. Heroin is also a semi-synthetic opioid. The effects of hydrocodone and oxycodone on the brain are indistinguishable from the effects produced by heroin.
Opioids are essential medicines for palliative care. They are also helpful when used for a couple of days after major surgery or a serious accident. Unfortunately, the bulk of the opioid prescriptions in the U.S. are for common conditions, like back pain.
In these cases, opioids are more likely to harm patients than help them because the risks of long-term use, such as addiction, outweigh potential benefit. Opioids have not been proven effective for daily, long-term use. Evidence suggests that chronic use of opioids can even make pain worse, a phenomenon called hyperalgesia.