Fatal Heroin Overdoses Quadruple Over Five Years

By Keri Blakinger 02/27/17

In 2015, one in four drug overdoses were heroin-related. 

Hospital workers pushing patient.

In just five years, fatal heroin overdoses more than quadrupled, according to newly released data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

A deadly combination of decreasing dope prices and skyrocketing potency could be behind the spike in fatalities, according to Reuters.

"Each year I think it's hard to imagine it getting much worse and yet last year we had the highest number of deaths on record," Dr. Caleb Alexander of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness told ABC News.

In 2010, there were 3,036 fatal overdoses involving heroin, while in 2015 that number increased to 12,989 and accounted for a quarter of all fatal drug overdoses. 

Rich Hamburg, of the non-profit Trust for America’s Health, traced the rising heroin fatalities to the ongoing prescription painkiller abuse problem. "You are 40 times more likely to use heroin if you started with opioid painkillers," he told Reuters. "Heroin is part of America's larger drug abuse problem."

But the data released Friday showed a slight decrease in the percentage of overdose deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids, a category that includes drugs like morphine and oxycodone. 

Methadone deaths saw a similar decrease, but synthetic opioids—a category that includes fentanyl—were on the rise. In 2010, just 8% of fatal overdoses were caused by synthetic opioids, but five years later that number jumped to 18%.

Some regions of the country have been hit harder by drug deaths than others, data shows. The southwest, the Appalachian region and northern New England all had statistically higher than average overdose death rates, and West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio were the four states hardest-hit. 

The overdose rate increased slightly more for men than it did for women, but one of the most noticeable demographic shifts was the increase in drug deaths in middle age and older adults. Although overdose rates increased across all age groups between 1999 and 2015, the largest uptick was in the 55 to 64 age group, where the death rate nearly quintupled over 16 years. Overall, death rates for adults between 25 and 64 were more than twice that of 15- to 24-year-olds. 

"Sometimes there's this perception that this is a problem of only teenagers or young adults and nothing could be further from the truth," Alexander said. "Middle aged and elderly adults are also being affected by the epidemic."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.