Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Surged 279% Since 2016 While Heroin Deaths Fell: CDC

drug overdose death rates

The rate of drug overdose deaths linked to fentanyl in the United States has skyrocketed over the last five years, new federal data showed.

The rate of overdose deaths involving fentanyl spiked by 279% between 2016 and 2021 from 5.7 per 100,000 to 21.6 per 100,000, according to a report published early Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Vital Statistics System — which looked at death certificate records.

“We are always hoping we won’t see a rise in fentanyl deaths, but this really highlights that this is continuing to be the public health problem,” Merianne Spencer, a co-author of the report and a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told ABC News.

Although the rate of overdose deaths linked to other drugs also saw increases, they were more modest rises and did not reach the levels of fentanyl.

Deaths linked to methamphetamine quadrupled from 2.1 per 100,000 in 2016 to 9.6 per 100,000 in 2021 and deaths due to cocaine more than doubled from 3.5 per 100,000 to 7.9 per 100,000 over the same period.

“When it comes to overdose, really the biggest driver is folks who are really struggling with addiction primarily on street drugs, which fentanyl is primarily found in terms of the street drug supply rather than a prescription medication,” Dr. Allison Lin, an addiction psychiatrist at University of Michigan Medical School, who was not involved in the report, told ABC News.

“And it’s primarily folks who are struggling with addiction to multiple substances, so oftentimes, folks who are using not only fentanyl, but fentanyl plus cocaine or fentanyl plus methamphetamine,” she said.

Meanwhile, drugs that used to make up the majority of overdose deaths — heroin and oxycodone — saw declines in their rates of death.

Rates of heroin overdose fatalities fell from 4.9 per 100,000 to 2.9 per 100,000 while oxycodone overdose death rates fell slightly from 1.9 per 100,000 to 1.5 per 100,000.

Researchers have noted there has been a marked increase in fentanyl use, and subsequently fentanyl overdoses, as heroin overdoses have fallen.

From 2019 to 2020 alone, the rate of fentanyl deaths linked to fentanyl rose by 55% and by 24.1% from 2020 to 2021, according to the report. The Department of Justice and the FBI announced on Tuesday that 300 people were arrested after a year-long operation tracking the trafficking of fentanyl and opioids on the dark web.

There has been a shift from a heroin-based market to a fentanyl-based market, according to the DOJ’s Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The vast majority of our folks or patients with substance use disorders, even if they don’t know it, they’re primarily using the drug supply that’s primarily fentanyl,” Lin said. “So, the folks who were using heroin previously are the folks who are also using fentanyl now. It’s just that the supply of opioids and other drugs in our communities are primarily supplies that are predominantly fentanyl because of all the characteristics of it, how inexpensive it is, how easy it is to cut with other substances, other factors.”

However, the CDC said the decrease in heroin-related deaths is also linked to increased treatments for people who use heroin, as well as increased access to naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses.

Data showed that, for all five drugs analyzed in 2021, men had higher rates of death than women. The widest gap was when it came to rates of death due to heroin with men having a rate nearly three times higher at 4.2 per 100,000 compared to 1.5 per 100,000 for women.

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