Measuring the opioid epidemic’s grim toll
A new study has laid bare the devastating human cost of America’s opioid epidemic, revealing that opioid-related deaths have more than quadrupled over the past 18 years. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Census, researchers counted 351,630 opioid-related deaths between 1999 and 2016. They found that the opioid-linked death rate over that period rose from 2.9 per 100,000 to 13.2 per 100,000. And the figures show that while opioid deaths were once concentrated in the Midwest and Appalachia, the plague has advanced toward the East Coast. Particularly badly affected are Washington, D.C.—which has seen its opioid mortality rate more than triple each year since 2013—and New Hampshire and West Virginia, where overdoses have caused general life expectancy to drop by more than a year. Death rates are spiking on the East Coast because heroin laced with fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin—has become the region’s fix of choice. “The heroin on the East Coast is much more lethal than the heroin on the West Coast,” co-author Mathew Kiang, from Stanford University, tells NBCNews.com. The study concludes that the opioid epidemic has so far had three stages. The first, driven by prescription painkiller abuse, lasted from 1999 to 2010. The second and third stages, in which users shifted to heroin and synthetic opioids, are ongoing.