The U.S. suffered the deadliest year on record for fatal drug overdoses, which claimed 52,404 lives in 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The rising rate of drug overdoses is primarily driven by the national opioid epidemic plaguing cities and states throughout the country; it accounts for 80 percent of drug fatalities. Health officials revealed Thursday that for the first time ever, there were more deaths related to heroin than gun homicides or suicides in 2015. Heroin deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993. Opioid fatalities also eclipsed death from motor vehicle accidents in 2015, reports The Washington Post.
Officials are particularly concerned with the wide abuse of prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin. The largest share of opioid related deaths in 2015 came from misuse of prescription painkillers. The drugs are widely available and health experts fear doctors are over prescribing the drugs without proper warnings.
Thirty-five percent of patients using a prescription opioid said their doctor never discussed the risk of addiction with them, according to a recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post. A shocking 50 percent of patients said they were also prescribed antidepressants and anxiety medication with the painkiller, something officials generally warn against.
One-third of patients surveyed said they felt like they were addicted or physically dependent on their prescription opioids, but 50 percent of family members of prescription opioid users surveyed said they suspected an addiction.
Use of prescription painkillers is now more widespread in the U.S. than tobacco use. Many people who overdose on substances like heroin began with a dependence on prescription painkillers, but switched after building high tolerances that made them too expensive.
“The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement Thursday. “Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems.”
The DEA warns that even heroin users with extremely high tolerances are more likely to have a fatal overdose due to the presence of carfentanil and fentanyl.
“The presence of carfentanil in illicit U.S. drug markets is cause for concern, as the relative strength of this drug could lead to an increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths, even among opioid-tolerant users,” according to a DEA report. “Public health officials maintain that fentanyl is contributing to most of this increase [overdoses]. Fentanyl is sometimes added to heroin batches, or mixed with other adulterants and sold as counterfeit heroin, unknown to the user.”
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