New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the opioid epidemic may not be as centered in white rural communities as previously thought. According to The New York Times, the number of black Americans dying from opioid overdose is on the rise.
In 2016, the number of black Americans killed by accidental drug overdose in urban areas increased by 41%. In comparison, the number of white Americans killed by an accidental overdose in those same areas increased only by 19%.
One of the main causes for the spike in deaths is the rise in the use of fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opioid far more addictive, and far more deadly, than heroin. In recent years it’s been sold on the streets as heroin leading to a stealthy and horrific surge in addiction.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Americans even in the face of diseases such as lung cancer, which is caused by smoking and radon gas exposure, and diabetes. However, due to the continued surge in overdose deaths, accidental overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 55. As a result, life expectancy for Americans has now declined for the second year in a row.
Surprisingly, the majority of black Americans who have been succumbing to drug overdose are between the ages of 45 and 64. According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University, these may be the same men who became addicted during the heroin epidemic of the 1970s.
“Despite beating the odds for the past 40 to 50 years,” Dr. Kolodny said to the Times, “they’re dying because the heroin supply has never been so dangerous — increasingly it’s got fentanyl in it or it’s just fentanyl sold as heroin.”
Certain collective amounts of cocaine have also been found to be laced with fentanyl. This finding, in particular, is interesting considering a recent study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
The study found that the number of black deaths related to cocaine between 2012 and 2015 was on par with the number of white deaths related to opioids during the same time. In 2016, heroin was the leading cause of overdose-related black deaths.
Approximately 591,000 people suffered from heroin addiction in 2015. Up to 33,091 people that same year died of opioid overdose. According to Dr. Denise Paone, the senior director of New York City’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Use Prevention, fentanyl played a role in 16% of those deaths and 44% of overdose deaths in 2016.
Efforts have been made to fight back against the epidemic. For instance, the overdose-saving drug naloxone has been made increasingly available.
Medication-assisted treatments such as methadone programs have also improved chances of rehabilitation. Methadone helps to relieve withdrawal symptoms, which can last as long as a bad cold (an average of 10 days), to help patients respond to treatment.
However, despite these improvements, Dr. Kolodny says that the death rate among older black men who may have used heroin in the 1970s shows that the progress to fight the opioid epidemic may take decades.
“Forty, 50 years later we’re still paying a price,” said Dr. Kolodny. “What this means is for our current epidemic, we’re going to be paying a very heavy human and economic price for the rest of our lives.”