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How Increased Awareness Can Help Prevent Opioid Overdose

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Deb Houry, MD, MPH

Director, CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

“Collaboration is essential for success in preventing drug-overdose deaths.”

As a physician and as the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Injury Center, I’ve seen the opioid overdose epidemic evolve from different perspectives. While we are beginning to see the effectiveness of prevention efforts, we also see that overdose deaths increasingly involve more than just one drug. And even with progress, it is still heartbreaking to see firsthand the struggles of individuals, their families and their communities.

The evolving epidemic

More than 70,000 people lost their lives to drug overdose in the United States in 2017, but we have seen some data that suggest we are on track to turn the tide. Provisional 2018 data indicate potential improvements, and we await analysis of final 2018 data to know the whole story. In 2017, the overall opioid prescribing rate in the United States has fallen to the lowest it has been in more than 10 years. Also, data from 2017 show the number of people who used heroin for the first time was lower than in most years from 2009 to 2016. Heroin and prescription-opioid-involved deaths remained relatively stable from 2016 to 2017.

Still, prescribing rates continue to remain seven times higher in certain areas across the country. The number of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids in 2017 was still almost six times higher than in 1999. In addition, there has been a significant increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids — particularly those involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl. From 2016-2017, the overdose death rates linked to synthetic opioids increased by 45 percent.              

Deaths from cocaine and other psychostimulants (e.g., methamphetamine and ecstasy) also increased; deaths involving cocaine increased by more than 34 percent, and those involving psychostimulants increased by more than 33 percent from 2016 to 2017.

Support system

The Department of Health and Human Services has implemented a comprehensive plan to address the opioid epidemic. Essential to this plan is more timely and comprehensive surveillance data to inform efforts to prevent and respond to opioid overdoses; a sense of urgency involving prescription and illicit opioids, specifically illicitly manufactured fentanyl — both acutely, by reversing overdoses with naloxone, and over the long term, by ensuring that those with opioid addiction receive effective treatment. Drug overdose deaths are a critical public health issue, and as this epidemic evolves, there is still much work to be done.

Collaboration is essential for success in preventing drug-overdose deaths. CDC supports states, territories and tribes by awarding funds to improve the quality of data that can show trends in the epidemic. This funding also strengthens state, local and tribal capacity to scale up effective strategies to prevent and respond to opioid overdoses. CDC’s role in this fight is to move data into action. CDC is committed to providing the resources needed to collect data, respond to overdoses and provide care to communities burdened by opioid overdoses and deaths.

Deb Houry, MD, MPH, Director, CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, [email protected]

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