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New provisional data released by the federal government estimates that between January and December 2021, approximately 108,000 people died from drug overdoses.
“This is an increase of about 15% from the number of deaths in 2020,” said Farida Ahmed, a research scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 94,000 died in 2020.
From 2019 to 2020 the overdose mortality rate was much higher year-on-year, reaching a historic 30% increase. Despite a slowdown in mortality in 2021, the total number of deaths is still the highest annual overdose deaths recorded in the United States.
“More than 80,000 of these deaths involve opioids, an increase of about 15% over last year,” Ahmed said.
And more than 71,000 opioid-related deaths involved the illicitly made fentanyl, which has been mixed with various illicit drugs in recent years.
Dr. Nora Volko, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said: “Over the past three years, we have seen an increase in contamination of fentanyl with other illicit drugs, be it cocaine, methamphetamine and, more recently, illicit prescription drugs.”
This puts a large population of drug users at high risk, he added. “In many cases, they may be people who just take one pill and they get that contaminated pill and they may die.”
This includes adolescents, he added, who were less likely to die of overdose until recently. A recent study found that for the first time in a decade, the number of adolescents dying of overdose increased by 2020. Volco and other addiction researchers believe this is primarily because fentanyl is increasingly being added to counterfeit prescription drugs, which are popular at this age. Team
“It’s devastating and heartbreaking that we’re in this position,” said Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance, an addiction policy advocacy group. “We have been in this overdose crisis for over 20 years and there are no signs of any kind of slowdown in death. If anything, things seem to have gotten worse.”
In April, the Biden administration announced plans to tackle the growing number of overdose deaths, including increasing access to harm-reducing methods such as naloxone, a drug that counteracts overdose.
Vakharia said he was pleased to see such “historic” investments in improving access to damage reduction measures.
“Damage reduction has historically been incredibly underfunded and employed from state and local funds or private funds to sustain itself,” he says.
However, much more needs to be done to address the scale of the problem, he added. He said there are currently only two legal over-the-ground overdose prevention centers operating in the country at a time when communities across the country need them.
“And so I think all of our efforts going forward must be improved, widened and ramped up,” he added.