Dramatic Rise In Fentanyl Deaths Marks Third Wave Of Opioid Crisis

By Kelly Burch 03/22/19

From 2011 to 2016, Black Americans experienced the sharpest rise in fentanyl-related deaths with a 141% increase.

Image: 
doctor with defibrillator trying to revive patient who overdose on synthetic opioid fentanyl

Fentanyl overdose rates have been rising at very sharp rates among minorities, including African Americans and Hispanic Americans, according to new data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The data looked at fentanyl overdose rates between 2011 and 2016. Researchers found that the fentanyl overdose rate for African Americans rose the fastest out of any ethnic group—increasing, on average, 141% each year.

Hispanic Americans also showed a dramatic increase of 118% each year. Non-Hispanic whites saw their rates of fentanyl overdoses increase 61% each year, on average. 

African Americans and Hispanic Americans still have lower overdose rates overall—5.6 and 2.5 deaths per 100,000 respectively. Whites, by comparison, continue to have the highest fentanyl overdose rates at 7.7 deaths per 100,000.

However, lead study author, Merianne Rose Spencer, said it’s important to note that the overdose rate for Black Americans is rising at more than double the rate of white Americans, according to The Washington Post

Overall, the data showed shocking increases in fentanyl overdoses in all demographics. 

“Beginning in the fourth quarter of 2013, the number of deaths increased every quarter. From 2013 through 2014, the death rate more than doubled, nearly doubled again from 2014 through 2015, and more than doubled again from 2015 through 2016,” report authors wrote. 

The CDC’s mortality statistics branch’s chief, Robert Anderson, said that the severity of the fentanyl overdose crisis is clear. “We’re seeing it across the board,” he said.

The rate of overdose accelerated in 2014, when, according to Ohio Senator Rob Portman, fentanyl “came on with a vengeance.” “We were making progress, starting to get this stuff in the right direction, and the fentanyl just overwhelmed the systems,” he said this week. 

Although the recently released data didn’t cover 2017 or 2018, there are indications that the pace of increase of overdoses has slowed in the last two years. Preliminary numbers show that 70,424 died by August of 2018, compared with 72,287 deaths by November of 2017. 

Anderson said the numbers suggest that the rate has plateaued, but is not yet truly reversing. “We would look at that and say that’s pretty flat. We’d be reluctant to call it a real decline,” he said.

Still, Portman said that the numbers show a step in the right direction, particularly after a long period of dramatic increases. 

“It is a very significant story that for the first time in eight years we’re not seeing an increase in overdose deaths,” he said. “We feel like it’s still unacceptably high, but we’re cautiously optimistic that we’ve finally turned the corner after eight years.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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