U.S. drug overdose deaths appear to have decreased for the first time in nearly three decades, according to preliminary data Wednesday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a first sign that the devastating opioid abuse crisis may be cresting.
There were 67,744 drug overdose deaths in 2018, according to the latest numbers, down from the 70,237 deaths reported in 2017.
The CDC predicts 68,557 deaths in 2018, but declined to comment on predicted trends from the latest numbers because the data is preliminary.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II said in a statement that the preliminary data showed “we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.” But, he added, “this crisis developed over two decades and it will not be solved overnight.
Lindsey Vuolo, director of health law and policy at the New York City-based Center on Addiction, said it’s important to acknowledge the possible slight decline in drug overdose deaths, but not to forget the high numbers of people who continue to overdose and die.
“We are still talking about a number that is very large,” she said. “If the CDC data ends up being correct, in 2018 there were more than 180 people who died every day from a drug overdose.”
“A slight decline is still not a cause for celebration when there are still so many people dying from a disease that is entirely preventable and treatable,” Ms. Vuolo added.
Communities and states that have been especially hard hit by the opioid crisis were welcoming any glimmer of good news, but stressed the size of the crisis still to be addressed.
“Although we are cautiously optimistic about the decrease in numbers of ODs, we are still seeing a huge increase compared to when I took office in 2012,” Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, Hamilton County, Ohio coroner, told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “We have to keep sending the message to stay away from drugs to save lives.”
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said in a statement that the CDC numbers were “good news, but our work is far from over.” He cited the spike in deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and a recent resurgence in methadone abuse.
Overdose deaths have continually climbed since 1990, when 8,413 deaths were reported. In recent years, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl acted as the “main driver” of drug overdose deaths, according to the CDC.
For 2017, opioids were involved in 47,600 U.S. drug overdose deaths, almost 68% of the total number of deaths. The states with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths that year were West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, along with Washington D.C.
From 2014 and 2017, overdose deaths jumped dramatically, increasing by 5,000 to 9,000 each year. In 2014, the CDC recorded 47,055 deaths. Two years later, there were 63,632 deaths reported to the agency.
Decreases in deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers contributed to the slight drop in 2018, but growth in deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine and psychostimulants like methamphetamines counteracted those.
“We’ve known that cocaine and meth are the two sort of emerging epidemics,” Ms. Vuolo said. “And so it’s really important that we’re not just focusing all of our efforts on opioid addiction, but that we’re looking at addiction more broadly.”
“We really need to increase prevention and treatment for addiction broadly, not only to solve this epidemic but then to prevent future ones. Otherwise, we’re just going to continue to chase drug epidemics,” she added.
To address drug addiction, she said there needs to be more education to prevent addiction, better screenings of substance use disorder and increased funding and access to treatment.
The CDC said it expects to have more complete data ready by November or December.
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