U.S. Opioid Overdose Epidemic Continues to Evolve and Grow

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a new study1 that confirms an increase in drug overdose deaths in 2017 compared with the previous year. The study reveals that of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths in 2017, 47,600 (67.8 percent) involved opioids, representing an increase of 12.0 percent from 2016. Synthetic opioids (including illicitly manufactured fentanyl) were involved in 59.8 percent of all opioid-involved overdose deaths, an increase of 45.2 percent from 2016 to 2017.

The report shows increases across multiple demographics. including age, race/ethnicity and location. The largest relative change in opioid-related deaths occurred among blacks (25.2 percent), and the largest absolute rate increase was among males aged 25–44 years (an increase of 4.6 per 100,000). Another significant finding is the relative increase in opioid deaths of older adults (65+ years), which jumped 17.2 percent. And location remains a critical correlating factor. Counties in medium-size metro areas experienced the largest absolute rate increase (an increase of 1.9 per 100,000), but the largest relative rate increase occurred in micropolitan counties (14.9 percent). Death rates increased significantly in 15 states, with the largest relative changes occurring in North Carolina (28.6 percent), Ohio (19.1 percent), and Maine (18.7 percent).

Synthetic opioids propelled death increases from 2016 to 2017 across all demographic categories. The highest death rate involving synthetic opioids occurred among males aged 25–44 years (27.0 per 100,000), and the largest relative increases occurred among blacks (60.7 percent) and American Indian/Alaska Natives (58.5 percent). The largest relative rate increase in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths occurred in Arizona (122.2 percent), followed by North Carolina (112.9 percent) and Oregon (90.9 percent). The highest overall death rates in 2017 were in West Virginia (37.4 per 100,000), Ohio (32.4), and New Hampshire (30.4).

Prescription opioid-involved death rates also showed changes during the period studied. The study noted decreases from 2016 to 2017 among males aged 15–24 (13.2 percent), but among persons aged 65 years and older, prescription opioid-involved deaths increased 10.5 percent.

More details on the study are available in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

1Scholl L, Seth P, Kariisa M, Wilson N, Baldwin G. Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2013–2017. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 21 December 2018.