Annual drug overdose deaths have reached another record high in the United States as deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surge to unprecedented levels.
An estimated 105,752 people died of drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending October 2021, according to provisional data published Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
About two-thirds of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, a stronger and faster-acting drug than natural opiates.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have had a rapid and dramatic rise; overdose deaths involving these drugs have nearly doubled over the past two years, from about 35,000 deaths in the 12-month period ending October 2019 to more than 69,000 in October 2021.
“Fentanyl, even at very, very small quantities, is lethal for most people,” said Katherine Keyes, an associate professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health whose research focuses on psychiatric and substance use epidemiology. “It’s just an incredibly potent opioid.”
CDC data first indicated that overdose deaths from any drug surpassed 100,000 annually in data through April 2021. This is the seventh month in a row that estimates for the latest 12-month period have stayed above this level.
Overdose deaths were up in all but four states compared with a year earlier, the provisional CDC data shows. New Hampshire, Hawaii, Delaware and Wyoming each saw year-over-year declines.
But it’s easy for the 54 fewer lives lost in these four states to be overshadowed by the much larger loss nationwide. The latest data shows that about 15,000 more people died of drug overdoses in the US than in the previous year, a 16% increase.
Along with synthetic opioids, the new federal data shows that overdose deaths from methamphetamine and other psychostimulants increased significantly, up nearly 40% from the year before. They accounted for about 30% of all overdose deaths in the latest 12-month period.
These stimulants are often seen in overdoses in which multiple drugs are involved, Keyes said – sometimes intentionally but other times when adulterated with fentanyl, for example.
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Addressing these harrowing trends involves “big, systems-level issues,” said Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute.
“Reconceptualizing opioid-use disorder as an urgent health emergency is necessary,” he wrote in an email to CNN. As the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic linger, “mentally and financially depressed people are at increased risk for harms associated with opioids, so addressing wellness, poverty and housing are essential to health overall, including opioid-use disorder.”