Deaths Due to Heroin Have Quadrupled Since 2000

New findings from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point toward a sharp uptick in heroin-related deaths that began in 2011 and has continued over time.

In the U.S., deaths related to the use/abuse of prescription opioid medications are far more common than deaths related to consumption of the opioid street drug heroin. However, in recent years, heroin overdose has become a legitimate focus of increasing public health concern. In a report published in March 2015, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at the changing rate of heroin-related death in the U.S. from the year 2000 to the year 2013. These researchers concluded that a steep increase in such deaths began in 2011 and continued throughout the rest of the period under consideration.

Prescription Opioid-Related Death Rate

The CDC figures indicate that in 2000, approximately 4,400 Americans died as a direct result of using or misusing an opioid medication normally prescribed by a doctor. This number equated to 1.5 deaths for every 100,000 people. By 2005, the yearly total of prescription opioid-related deaths had more than doubled to 10,928 (3.7 deaths for every 100,000 people). Between 2000 and 2013, the peak rate of opioid medication-related death occurred in 2011; in that year, 16,917 people died (5.4 deaths for every 100,000 people). The rate of death dropped slightly in 2012 and 2013, but still remained in excess of 16,000 fatalities per year.

Heroin-Related Death Rate

In 2000, approximately 1,842 Americans died as a direct consequence of consuming heroin; this number equated to 0.7 deaths for every 100,000 people. The rate of heroin-related death fluctuated over the course of the next decade, but generally rose over time. In 2010, 3,036 Americans died after consuming heroin (one death for every 100,000 people). In 2011, the number of heroin-related fatalities began increasing sharply; in that year, 4,397 deaths occurred (1.4 deaths for every 100,000 people). The heroin-related death rate jumped to 1.9 fatalities per 100,000 people (5,925 deaths) in 2012, then rose even more steeply in 2013 (8,257 total deaths or 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people). The CDC researchers note that every year a relatively small number of opioid users/abusers die with both heroin and at least one opioid medication in their systems.

Who Dies From Heroin Use?

The CDC report included a detailed breakdown of the segments of the U.S. population most likely to die from heroin use. In 2013, men died from heroin intake at a rate of 4.2 fatalities for every 100,000 individuals, while women died at a much lower rate of 1.2 fatalities for every 100,000 individuals. Men have also been disproportionately affected by the steep rise in heroin-related death that characterizes the second decade of the 21st century. In terms of age, the highest risks for heroin-related death appear in people between their mid-20s and mid-40s. Young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 have the next-highest rate of death; older adults between the ages of 45 and 64 have a substantially lower rate of heroin-related death. Death rates in all three of these age-based groups started rising rapidly in 2011.

In terms of racial/ethnic background, Caucasian Americans die from heroin-related causes far more often than African Americans or Hispanics. Young and middle-aged Caucasian Americans had a very high heroin-related death rate of 7.0 fatalities per 100,000 people in 2013. In comparison, death rates for African Americans and Hispanics in the same age range were between two and three fatalities per 100,000 people. Interestingly, in 2000, African Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 died from heroin-related causes more often than any other racial/ethnic segment of the population.

In terms of geographic location, people living in the Midwest are more likely to die from heroin-related causes than people living in any other part of the country. In 2013, the rate of heroin-related death in the Midwest was in excess of four fatalities per 100,000 individuals. People in the Northeast die from heroin use somewhat less often than people in the Midwest. Rates of death are much lower in the West and South.

The CDC researchers note that the rate of heroin-related death in the U.S. has increased at an average annual rate of 37 percent since the end of 2010. They emphasize the uneven distribution of the chances of dying after consuming heroin and highlight the importance of focusing public health efforts on heavily affected segments of the population.

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