Opi­oid over­dose deaths ex­pected to keep ris­ing un­til 2022

Fa­tal­i­ties will con­tinue to climb for years even if progress is made


In the na­tion’s opi­oid epi­demic, the car­nage is far from over.

A new pro­jec­tion of opi­oid over­dose death rates sug­gests that even if there is steady progress in re­duc­ing pre­scrip­tion nar­cotics abuse na­tion­wide, the num­ber of fa­tal over­doses — which reached 47,600 in 2017 — will rise sharply in the com­ing years.

By 2022, such deaths would peak at about 75,400, and be­gin to level off af­ter­ward, ac­cord­ing to the fore­cast.

That’s the rosiest sce­nario. Un­der con­di­tions that are only slightly less op­ti­mistic, the U.S. could have 81,700 opi­oid over­dose deaths per year by 2025.

If the sup­ply of pre­scrip­tion painkillers stops de­clin­ing and there are other set­backs, re­searchers pre­dict that yearly opi­oid over­dose deaths could rise as high as 200,000 per year by 2025.

Al­most two decades af­ter the wi­den­ing use of pre­scrip­tion painkillers be­gan to fuel an epi­demic of ad­dic­tion, opi­ates kill an av­er­age of 130 people a day in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion.

The driv­ing force of the epi­demic has changed. These days, an in­creas­ing pro­por­tion of over­dose vic­tims first got hooked on street drugs like heroin. And since 2016, the ex­plo­sive growth of fen­tanyl — an il­licit opi­ate that is highly lethal — has wors­ened the epi­demic.

Mean­while, many Amer­i­cans who were first ex­posed to opi­ates by pre­scrip­tion have con­tin­ued to mis­use the drugs over many years, said Dr. Don­ald Burke, who stud­ies the Amer­i­can drug epi­demic at the Uni­ver­sity of Pitts­burgh and was not in­volved in the new re­search. Un­til these people ei­ther are treated or die of over­doses, they form a “reser­voir” of po­ten­tial vic­tims for the spi­ral­ing epi­demic, he said.

The new modeling ef­fort, pub­lished Fri­day in the jour­nal JAMA Net­work Open, finds that slow­ing the epi­demic’s up­ward tra­jec­tory be­fore 2025 will re­quire broad-based ac­tion, and more than a bit of luck.

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