CDC Drug Overdose Death Report: 'An Ongoing Tragedy'

Drug overdose deaths remain at an all-time high in the United States, according to a new report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More people in the U.S. died from a drug overdose in 2022 than any prior year on record — with 107,941 deaths recorded.

That’s according to the CDC's new drug overdose death report, which presents rates of drug overdose deaths from the National Vital Statistics System from 2002 to 2022, with a focus on changes from 2021 to 2022.

The report demonstrates that drug overdose death rates remained relatively stable between 2021 and 2022, increasing only slightly, but were four times higher than two decades ago.

“The results are unfortunately not surprising, but they do reflect an ongoing tragedy,” says Kenneth Feder, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who researches policies and practices to help prevent overdose deaths and improve healthcare quality for people who use drugs.

One of the main reasons why overdose death rates remain historically high, Feder tells Healthnews, is most likely because of the high proportion of illicit drugs in the U.S. that contain fentanyl — an opioid drug that is much more potent than heroin and is, therefore, more likely to cause overdose.

The CDC report says overdoses involving synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, have risen in the past few years, with the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone — which includes fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol — remaining mostly stable from 2002 (0.4 deaths per 100,000 standard population) to 2013 (1.0) and then increasing through 2022 (22.7).

Demographics and details

The report found that drug overdose death rates among people ages 15–34 decreased between 2021 and 2022 but increased for those ages 35 and older.

Within the same year, rates increased for all races and Hispanic-origin groups, except Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander non-Hispanic and White non-Hispanic people.

The rate for synthetic opioids other than methadone increased 4.1% from 21.8 to 22.7 in that time span, while rates for heroin, natural and semisynthetic opioids, and methadone declined. Between 2021 and 2022, rates for cocaine and psychostimulants with abuse potential also increased.

The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths for males increased by 1.1% from 45.1 to 45.6 between 2021 and 2022, while the rate for females decreased by 1% from 19.6 to 19.4, although the CDC notes that this decrease was not significant.

Overall, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2022, from 8.2 deaths per 100,000 standard population to 32.6. Between 2021 and 2022, the rate increased ever so slightly, from 32.4 to 32.6.

Preventing drug overdoses and saving lives

“In this increasingly dangerous environment for people who use drugs, it is important that we take a public health approach to saving lives,” Feder says.

To do this, he says we must make sure that naloxone — a medicine that reverses opioid overdoses — is easily available to people who use drugs. Both bystanders and first responders can use naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose and save a life, he says.

Feder says we must also make sure that people who have an opioid use disorder — a major risk factor for overdose death — can access evidence-based treatments with medicines like methadone and buprenorphine that reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

People with opioid use disorder treated with these medications are less likely to overdose than people who are not, but most people in the United States who would likely benefit from these treatments are not receiving them.

Feder

And finally, if our goal is to save lives, he says prison and jail are counterproductive: people who were recently incarcerated are much more likely to overdose and die than people who were not recently incarcerated.


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