WASHINGTON—The number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has begun to level off after years of relentless increases driven by the opioid epidemic, health secretary Alex Azar said on Oct. 23, cautioning it’s too soon to declare victory.
“We are so far from the end of the epidemic, but we are perhaps, at the end of the beginning,” Azar said in prepared remarks for a health care event sponsored by the Milken Institute think tank.
Confronting the opioid epidemic has been the rare issue uniting Republicans and Democrats in a politically divided nation. A bill providing major funding for treatment was passed under former President Barack Obama, and two more have followed under President Donald Trump.
More than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to preliminary numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer—a 10 percent increase from 2016.
Azar said in his speech that toward the end of last year and through the beginning of this year, the number of deaths “has begun to plateau.” Azar was not suggesting that deaths are going down, but noting that they appear to be rising at a slower rate than previously seen.
Earlier this month, the CDC released figures—also preliminary—that appear to show a slowdown in overdose deaths in late 2017 and the first three months of this year. From December to March, those figures show that the pace of the increase over the previous 12 months has slowed from 10 percent to 3 percent, according to the preliminary CDC figures.
Despite the slowdown, the nation is still in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. Opioids were involved in most of the deaths, killing nearly 48,000 people last year.
While prescription opioid and heroin deaths appear to be leveling off, deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamines are on the rise. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid much more powerful than heroin, and it’s used as an additive in street drugs.
In an interview with The Associated Press this summer, a CDC expert said the overdose death numbers appear to be shifting for the better, but it’s too soon to draw firm conclusions.
Month-to-month data show a leveling off in the number of deaths, said Bob Anderson, a senior statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics. However, those numbers are considered preliminary, since death investigations have not been completed in all cases.
“It appears at this point that we may have reached a peak and we may start to see a decline,” said Anderson. “This reminds me of what we saw with HIV in the ’90s.”
Final numbers for 2018 won’t be available until the end of next year and things could also get worse, not better.
By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Carla K. Johnson