The Other Epidemic That No One Talks About: Drug Overdose

Health & Gender Policy Brief #142 | By: S Bhimji | November 24, 2021

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Policy Summary

Opioids are a class of pain relieving drugs that include both illegal drugs like heroin and synthetic legal ones like codeine, morphine, oxycodone, fentanyl and many others. The problem with opioids is that not are they addictive but they can quickly suppress respiration and lead to death.

For the past 2 years, the nation has been besieged by the Covid pandemic which has killed nearly 750,000 Americans to date. During the same period, at least 100,000 individuals have died from drug overdoses in the US, an increase of nearly 28% from the previous year. Prior to 2016, the majority of drug overdose deaths were from heroin but today the deaths are often associated with fentanyl, which is increasingly mixed with other illicit opioid drugs without the user’s knowledge. Today, fentanyl is involved in more than 65%-70% of overdose deaths.

Almost every state has reported a spike in drug overdose deaths during the Covid pandemic. 

The current drug overdose epidemic is a major public health crisis with 254 Americans dying every single day. The number of Americans dying from drug overdose has surpassed those from motor vehicle accidents, firearms, and even the common flu.  The epidemic has repercussions beyond the death of the individual- it is tearing and destroying the very fabric of the family unit. 

Data reveal that the biggest increase in overdose fatalities has occurred in Vermont, followed by West Virginia and Kentucky. Only three states reported a decline in drug overdose deaths –  New Jersey, New Hampshire, and South Dakota. When race is taken into account, opiates are the most common cause of death in Caucasians African Americans, and Native Americans.

In 2017, President Trump did declare the opioid crisis a national emergency but in subsequent years, all attention has been given to the Covid pandemic. 

Policy Analysis

What has caused this acute increase in opioid-related deaths remains a mystery- experts believe that the most likely reason is linked to the Covid pandemic which has exposed underlying issues in society that have not gotten the attention. There is no doubt that the pandemic caused a significant amount of social isolation and outreach to those in need was difficult. 

It appears that a significant number of people had limited or no access/support to services that lowered harm and prevented drug overdose. Research reveals that the majority of individuals affected by the drug overdose already had mental health issues and financial hardship, and this may have led to the accelerated use of opiates. 

But all is not gloom and doom.

Like the Covid pandemic, there has been some progress made in the fight against opioid drug overdose. Since local governments in many states are tied up with other matters, several organizations have taken up the fight against opiate drug overdose. In 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Pew Charitable Trust, and Vital Strategies joined forces with Johns Hopkins University and the CDC to address the current opioid crisis.

Beside donating million of dollars, Bloomberg Philanthropies has gifted $300 million to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to help advance knowledge in critical challenges facing American communities such as addiction and overdose; violence, risks to adolescent health, and obesity. 

When it comes to the fight against drug overdose, the goal is to offer evidence-based interventions while working with law enforcement at the same time. 

Besides developing communication strategies to improve access to treatments and reducing ADDICTION stigma, the money has been used to provide free naloxone supplies to affected communities. 

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In several states, this approach has led to a wider distribution and use of naloxone, which is used to rescue individuals who have overdosed. In addition, both Michigan and Pennsylvania have enacted preventive services such as syringe exchange programs. Early results show that in these states overdoses from opioids have started to fall. 

This has promoted Bloomberg Philanthropies to make more donations and the same approach will be used in other states facing high drug overdose-related deaths. But experts say that the fight against opiate addiction has to be multipronged-meaning the source and smuggling of the illicit drugs have to be addressed and access to naloxone should be made easier and more affordable.

The other problem according to Harm reduction agencies is that previously the naloxone kits only cost $2.50 but today the price has gone up 15 to 30 fold. Currently, Pfizer, Kaleo and Teva are the major manufacturers of naloxone kits and none of them have considered lowering the price. The expensive naloxone kits are an indication of wide dysfunction with Big Pharma, who consider profits to be more important than patient lives.

Nevertheless, experts suggest that besides naloxone, fentanyl consumption should be supervised so that users can be monitored-but beyond this, drug use disorders are a symptom of much larger economic and social problems in society and without addressing them, the fight against drug abuse will continue to be futile.

Engagement Resources​

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Fentanyl Drug Facts:

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Understanding naloxone:


Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts:

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