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Opioid Drugs

Opioid Initiatives May Be Working: Overdose Death Rate Down

— February 26, 2020

Opioid overdose and mortality rates down, according to report.

The federal government announced this month that the life expectancy rate, used to measure a population’s health, increased slightly in 2018 after it had declined in previous years due to the opioid crisis.  This is an extremely rare trend in developed countries where citizens have widespread access to life-saving healthcare.  The overdose rate and mortality rate also declined the same year, for the first time in almost thirty years.  This decrease suggests that some of the opioid interventions instituted by federal and state governments, such as the distribution of Narcan, are working.  At the same time, however, demographers are cautioning that it was too early to tell if the country is moving in the right direction.

“It’s good news, but we don’t know yet if it’s the beginning of a new trend,” said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the report.

Opioid Initiatives May Be Working: Overdose, Mortality Rates Down
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

However, addicts who have been able to receive treatment for opioid use disorder due to the new programs are expressing their gratitude.

“It’s literally like coming out of a fog,” said Andrew Wright, 34, who has been drug-free since August 2018, when he entered treatment at the Counseling Center in Portsmouth, Ohio. Medicaid, the government insurance program, covered his care. “It’s like I’m 22 and I’ve finally made it out of my parents’ house, embracing life for the first time. I’m learning how to live.”

Life expectancy at birth rose to 78.7 years in 2018 from 78.6 in 2017.  It peaked at 78.9 in 2014, then stayed the same or decreased for the next three years, according to the report.

“Improvements in cancer mortality rates represented the single largest share of the life expectancy gain in 2018, about 30 percent,” researchers noted.  This was followed by a decrease in unintentional injuries, a category that includes drug overdoses. That category accounted for roughly 25 percent.

“Good things are happening that hadn’t before, like sheriffs, hospitals and others who now use naloxone telling me, ‘We saved a life,’” said Shane Hudson, president and chief executive of CKF Addiction Treatment in Salina, Kansas.  His clinic is treating 117 people with medication for opioid addiction, up from 35 just two years prior.

“Deaths from overdoses dropped by 4.1 percent in 2018, to 67,367 from 70,237 in 2017.  The decrease was largely driven by a dip in deaths from prescription opioid painkillers, which set off the opioid epidemic in the late 1990s before heroin and, later, fentanyl moved in.  Provisional data suggests those deaths continued to fall in 2019, likely in part because of restrictions on prescribing,” according to the research.  It is also important to note, however, that “the death rate from fentanyl rose by 10 percent in 2018,” meaning this is an issue that’s far from over.

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a vice president at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the nation needed to invest far more funding in research to understand emerging patterns. “I’ve been a researcher in this area for 30 years and I can tell you the conversation and the funding has definitely changed,” she said, “but it’s still nowhere near the level of funding for any other public health problem of this scope.”


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