5 things to know about the US opioid epidemic


(Jair Lázaro, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Formative Content

Every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. If you’re American, you’re more likely to suffer this fate than to be killed in a car accident.

While many of us are aware of the shocking emergence of an opioid epidemic, new data from the Drug Enforcement Administration adds to evidence that the full scope of the crisis is yet to be fully understood.

At their best, opioids like oxycodone, codeine and morphine can be prescribed for patients to manage pain after surgery and while dealing with longer term conditions like cancer. Even so, risks include addiction, misuse, overdose and death and there’s a separate market in illicit opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF).

The epidemic is partly due to the overstatement of the benefits and understatement of the risks, according to an academic paper published in the journal Bone Joint J.

“Opioids are addictive and dangerous,” the authors of the paper write. “Most other parts of the world achieve comparable pain relief using fewer opioids. The misconceptions about opioids that created this epidemic are finding their way around the world.”

As the debate about what’s going on and the best way to deal with it continues, here are some statistics that illustrate how widespread the issue has become:

1. More than 1 million opioid pills are distributed in the US every hour

Between 2006 and 2012, drug makers and distributors provided the nation with 76 billion pills, setting in train a wave of abuse and overdoses. These new figures, published in a database by the Drug Enforcement Administration and uncovered by reporting from the Washington Post, shine a light on the nature of the epidemic, underlining how widespread availability helped push the US to the top of the drug-related deaths chart.

2. It varies state by state

Image: CDC

West Virginia is currently the state with the highest drug overdose death rate, with almost 52 per 100,000 population in 2016. Nebraska came bottom of the list with 6 per 100,000. Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Kentucky also had high rates, while South Dakota and Texas had low rates.

3. Illegal use is on the up

The availability of illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids like fentanyl has soared, blurring the lines between prescription and illicit opioid-involved deaths. Fentanyl was detected in at least half of opioid overdose deaths from July to December 2016 in 7 of the 10 states examined, in an academic study.

Image: CDC

4. There are some glimmers of hope

Recent years have seen a rising awareness of the epidemic and that means it’s come to the attention of health professionals and policy makers. The latest data suggests US drug overdose deaths fell for the first time in 20 years, marking the first drop in overdose deaths since 1999, according to the CDC. Even so, the rate remains high.

Image: CDC


5. It’s not just North America

While the US and Canada are often the focus of reporting on the crisis, overdose deaths are rising elsewhere, fuelled by prescriptions and the illicit drugs trade, the OECD says.

While it highlights the acute effect in North America, the report also shows deaths are rising sharply in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and England and Wales. The OECD calls for doctors to improve their prescribing practices and for governments to improve regulation of marketing and oversight of the financial relationships with opioid manufacturers.

Obtaining an accurate count of the true burden is essential to improving public health and public safety efforts. Tackling the issue will also have a wider economic impact, with the CDC estimating that the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse in the US is $78.5 billion a year.

Delivering affordable and quality healthcare is a key plank of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Health System Initiative. It aims to assess the continuum of care – from prevention to diagnosis, treatment, cure and maintenance of health – to enable people to lead healthier lives.

Work to find ways to address the opioid crisis and stop it spreading further has already begun, and hopefully will have a positive impact on people’s everyday lives and on our economies and public health budgets.

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