Overdose Deaths Dip For The First Time In Decades

By Kelly Burch 06/28/19

The national overdose toll declined by about 3,000 between 2017 and 2018.

narcan helped reduce opioid overdose deaths
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Overdose death rates were slightly lower in 2018 than in 2017, the first time in decades that the overdose rate has declined. 

Despite the positive news from preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), experts emphasized that with more than 69,000 Americans dying of an overdose in 2018 the nation is still in an epidemic. 

Robert N. Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told The American Journal of Managed Care that the national overdose toll was reduced by about 3,000 people between 2017 and 2018. That could indicate that “we may have reached a peak in the epidemic,” he said. 

Still, he cautioned, the overdose death rate remains extremely high. 

"That said, the number of deaths for 2018 is still predicted to be nearly 70,000. That is a lot of people dying much too young. Even if the decline holds once the data are final, it is too soon to declare victory,” Anderson said. 

The data is based on preliminary models and predictions of what the final data will look like. Anderson said that the models are usually accurate, however, so the trend will likely be confirmed. 

Increased access to the opioid-overdose reversal drug naloxone may have helped save lives and contributed to the lowered death toll. However, that means many people are still using drugs, and Anderson emphasized that the drug epidemic needs ongoing monitoring and interventions. 

“It is really impossible to predict what will happen for the next few years,” he said. “This may just be a lull in the epidemic or some new deadly drug will be introduced that exacerbates the situation.”

For example, meth use is becoming more popular among opioid users. While there are established medication-assisted treatment options for opioid use disorder, there are fewer options available for people who abuse methamphetamine. 

Although the national overdose rate declined, that was not universal among states. Some states, like Ohio, saw a significant decrease in overdose rates. Others, including Missouri and New Jersey, had more overdoses in 2018 than they did in 2017.

In general, the CDC data showed that overdoses increased in the west and southwest of the United States, and decreased in the east. 

The national overdose rate remains very high compared with previous decades. In 1999, overdoses accounted for 6.1 deaths per 100,000. In 2018, they accounted for 20.7 deaths per 100,000. 

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