By Jill Drachenberg, Editor, AHC Media

The rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States continues to grow at an alarming rate, with heroin leading the way, according to a new CDC report.

The findings of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics show that overdose deaths have reached crisis levels. The percentage of heroin deaths spiked from 8% in 2010 to 25% in 2015. Prescription opioid deaths decreased in the same time period, from 29% to 24%. Total drug overdose deaths rose from 6.1 per 100,000 in 1999 to 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015.

Adults aged 55-64 saw the greatest increase in overdose deaths (4.2 per 100,000 in 1999 to 21.8 in 2015), and the 45-54 group had the highest percentage of deaths in 2015 (30 per 100,000). West Virginia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Ohio lead the country in overdose death rates.

The CDC researchers did not speculate as to what may be driving the overdose deaths. Past research has shown that those addicted to prescription opioids may turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative.

Other findings include the following:

  • Men overdosed at a higher rate than women — 20.8 per 100,000 in 2015 vs. 11.8 per 110,000, respectively.
  • Non-Hispanic whites have the highest overdose rates, nearly quadrupling from 1999-2015. Whites had 21.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2015, versus 12.2 for non-Hispanic blacks and 7.7 for Hispanics.
  • Cocaine overdose deaths increased from 11% in 2010 to 13% in 2015.
  • Deaths involving psychostimulants such as methamphetamine doubled in the same five-year period, from 5% to 11%.
  • Twenty-one states have age-adjusted overdose death rates higher than the national average of 16.3 per 100,000, with West Virginia leading the country at 41.5. Nebraska, at 6.9, is the lowest.

The opioid epidemic has taken center stage as a public health crisis. In 2016, Congress passed bills that released more than $1.5 billion to states to fight opioid addiction, including greater access to treatment programs and the opioid overdose-reversing drug, naloxone. The Surgeon General’s report on addiction found that persons with substance abuse disorder outpaced those with cancer, and urged greater access to treatment. The CDC released safe opioid prescribing guidelines for patients with chronic pain. And the governor of Virginia declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, granting standing naloxone prescriptions for all of the state’s residents.

For more information on opioid prescribing policies and alternative treatments, please see The Opioid Epidemic: New Policies, Treatments, and Non-Opioid Alternatives. For standards on safe opioid use, see the on-demand webinar Safe Opioid Use: CMS CoPs.