It’s happening all around the country, especially in neighboring states like West Virginia and Ohio, and it’s happening right here in western Pennsylvania, too: the opioid epidemic is claiming more and more young lives. The CDC reported last week that between 1999-2015, the death rate of teens overdosing on drugs more than doubled. Maybe Americans were distracted by fighting two wars and overcoming a financial collapse and slow recovery as “another tragedy quietly unfolded,” posits Corky Siemaszko:
In 2015 alone, there were 772 drug overdose deaths for adolescents ages 15 through 19 and they died at a rate of 3.7 per 100,000, according to figures newly released Wednesday from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
By contrast, the death rate was 1.6 per 100,000 in 1999.
The most important contributors to this public health crisis have been prescription opioid pain relievers, heroin, and fentanyl. The death rate from overdoses was even higher in 2007 — 4.2 per 100,000.
35,000 Americans of all ages died of opioid overdoses in 2015. Let that sink in for a moment. A study published earlier this month suggests that might actually be too low a number because of the variability in which state coroners identify the drugs involved in the death certificates of overdose victims. According to Siemaszko, Pennsylvania is one of the states that underreports overdose deaths:
Susan Shanaman of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association said “there are many reasons that a Coroner may not list all the drugs on a death certificate,” including federal and state privacy rules.
“The average family gets 20 copies of a death certificate of their loved one,” she wrote in an email to NBC News. “These are used to close out bank accounts, transfer loan accounts, transfer titles to vehicles, claim insurance and the like. Not every family member wants the public to know what drugs were all found in the deceased.”
After some detective work by the researchers, it turns out that Pennsylvania ranks 7th in the U.S. in opioid overdose deaths and 4th in deaths from heroin. West Virginia has the highest opioid overdose death rate in the nation, while Ohio comes in number one for deadly heroin overdoses. Josh Katz says that drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old, mostly due to opioids:
Overdoses killed more people last year than guns or car accidents, and are doing so at a pace faster than the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak. In 2015, roughly 2 percent of deaths — one in 50 — in the United States were drug-related.
…Over two million Americans are estimated to have a problem with opioids. According to the latest survey data, over 97 million people took prescription painkillers in 2015; of these, 12 million did so without being directed by a doctor.
This is a big problem with no end in sight.