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On July 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data which shows that there were about 68,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States in 2018. This is a tragic and astounding number of lives lost, but it is also represents a nationwide decline in drug-related deaths. In 2017, there were 70,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the United States, so drug overdoses actually claimed fewer lives last year than the year before. Until 2018, the number of Americans who died from a drug overdose had been increasing every year since 1990. The new CDC data shows that this terrible trend has now been reversed, and it may signify that the national effort to reduce overdoses has started to make progress.
The seemingly unstoppable rise in fatal overdoses over the course of the past three decades has largely been the result of the opioid epidemic. About 130 Americans die every day from an overdose on a prescription opioid or a synthetic opioid, according to the most recent data. In fact, two-thirds of all fatal overdoses in America involve at least one opioid. Other dangerous and illegal drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, have also fueled the crisis.
Addiction experts speculate that the decline in drug-related deaths is most likely the result of efforts to increase the availability of naloxone, a medication which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, in areas with high rates of opioid addiction. In 2015, the FDA approved Narcan, a nasal spray version of naloxone that is easier to use than a naloxone injection.
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The number of prescriptions for naloxone increased from 271,000 prescriptions in 2017 to 557,000 prescriptions in 2018. The CDC now recommends that anyone who receives a prescription for opioids also receive a naloxone prescription. Moreover, states and cities across the country have started to permit pharmacies to sell naloxone without prescriptions, and police officers and other emergency responders have started to carry Narcan to revive overdose victims.
Another possible cause of the overdose decline is the decline in prescriptions for opioids. Health care professionals wrote about 49 million high-dose opioid prescriptions in 2017, but they only wrote about 38 million prescriptions last year. Moreover, more Americans than ever have started treatment for opioid addiction. For example, in Vermont, more than 8,000 people began treatment for opioid addiction last year. This is yet another factor in reversing the nationwide opioid death spiral.
Nevertheless, addiction to opioids and other drugs still claimed the lives of more Americans than gun violence, car accidents, and HIV/AIDS in 2018, and one synthetic opioid, fentanyl, caused more deaths last year than ever before. In Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and other states where fentanyl remains prevalent, the number of fatal overdoses continued to increase.
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“We are all cautiously optimistic and grateful to see this drop,” one DEA spokesman said in reaction to the CDC data. Alex Azar, the federal Secretary of Health and Human Services, announced that “America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder and addiction are working” but warned that the overdose crisis remains a major challenge for the country.
Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis. By no means have we declared victory against the epidemic or addiction in general. This crisis developed over two decades, and it will not be solved overnight.”
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