Between 2011 and 2016, drug overdose deaths in the United States involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl dramatically increased, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The number of annual drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl was stable at 1,663 in 2011 and 1,615 in 2012. The rate began to rise in 2013, and reached 18,335 by the end of 2016.
The study identifies trends in drug overdose deaths among various demographic groups by sex, age, race and ethnicity, and geographic location. The rate was similar for males and females until 2013, when the number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl for males began to increase at a higher rate than for females. Young adults aged 25 to 34 saw the highest average annual percent change of any age group and experienced the highest number of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl. The rate of death was greater among non-Hispanic white people than Hispanic people and non-Hispanic black people, while the racial and ethnic group that saw the highest rate increase was non-Hispanic blacks. The geographic area that saw the greatest increase was New England.
Fentanyl is a factor in the opioid epidemic that is killing more than 70,000 people per year in the U.S. The drug is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and was developed as a pain management treatment for cancer patients. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl has been widely abused due to its powerful opioid properties, and in many cases it is added to heroin to increase potency without users' knowledge, leading to overdose deaths. In 2017, fentanyl became the leading cause of overdose deaths in America; that year, synthetic opioids including fentanyl were responsible for 28,869 out of 47,600 opioid overdoses, according to the Washington Post.
The Post's investigation revealed that DEA officials had warned Obama administration officials of the spike in fentanyl deaths beginning in 2013, but action was slow-moving on the part of the White House. The CDC issued a nationwide health advisory in 2015, and, in 2016, 11 public-health experts wrote to administration officials to request an emergency declaration. In 2017, former President Barack Obama called fentanyl a national crisis.
A separate report released by the CDC this month indicated that overall overdose deaths have stabilized over the last year and a half.
"It is a very significant story that for the first time in eight years we're not seeing an increase in overdose deaths," Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) told the Post. "We feel like it's still unacceptably high, but we're cautiously optimistic that we've finally turned the corner after eight years."