Another 3,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, pushing the US death toll to a record high

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The opioid epidemic took its sharpest toll on young people in the last year, according to data released Tuesday that show a record-breaking number of US deaths from opioid overdose – a problem that highlights a need for access to treatment services to prevent, mitigate and reverse the uptick in fatal overdoses.

At least 42,600 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, a 22 per cent increase from 2016, according to the preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The figures do not include the number of people who died in accidental overdoses in a motorcycle accident, which in 2017 was around 5,600.

However, the 2016 death toll was 12,800 more than the previous year, largely fueled by an increase in the number of deaths due to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, and heroin.

Michael Botticelli, who headed the CDC’s office of National Drug Control Policy under the Obama administration, said on Twitter the increased fatality rate was not surprising. “We have known for a while that this surge in fatal overdoses is entirely drug-related,” he said.

Globally, deaths due to drug overdoses have reached an all-time high, with the World Health Organization estimating that 9.3 million people died from an overdose last year.

The number of drug overdose deaths across the US peaked in 2015 at 50,000, with nearly 64,000 last year. The spikes stem from a spike in the use of heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl as well as the ability of the pills to be crushed and snorted. Prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, have been relegated to the same pile with heroin in recent years, according to the data from the CDC.

Patients who switch to heroin, fentanyl and another synthetic opioid, carfentanil, are more likely to die, and opioids in pill form have been superseded by opioid patches as the opioid substitute of choice for back pain, according to the CDC.

Opioids can be fatal in large quantities, leading to the CDC’s warning in late March of overdose from taking even little amounts of heroin or fentanyl in a bathtub, which, according to previous studies, has killed 2,700 people since 2015. In addition, death rate by unintentional poisoning rose almost threefold between 2005 and 2015 among people aged 35-44. A data base was launched in 2015 by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which includes health care professionals and law enforcement personnel, that provides a 24-hour hotline for individuals needing help in finding drugs and safe handling.

Doctors are still the gatekeepers for drug treatment services, which can be difficult and expensive for the addicts. Any meaningful change in overdose death rates depends largely on strategies from the Trump administration to reduce both the availability of cheap drugs and the supply of addiction services and treatment.

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