Primed by widespread use of prescription opioid pain-killers, heroin addiction and the rate of fatal overdoses have increased rapidly over the past decade, touching parts of society that previously were relatively unscathed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.
The death rate from overdoses nearly quadrupled to 2.7 per 100,000 people between 2002 and 2013, CDC Director Tom Frieden said during a telephone news conference Tuesday. In 60 percent of those cases, the cause of death was attributed to heroin and at least one other drug, often cocaine, according to Chris Jones, lead author of the report and a member of the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Public Health Strategy and Analysis.
But it is the highly addictive pain-killing opioids, prescribed and sometimes over-prescribed by physicians who are not highly trained in pain management, that concerns officials most, Frieden said.
"A few doses and someone can have a life of addiction, a few too many and someone can die of an overdose," Frieden said. With heroin an estimated five times less expensive than prescription drugs and widely available on the street, people with opioid addictions are turning to the drug in large numbers, he said.
The annual rate of heroin use rose from 1.6 per 1,000 people between 2002 and 2004 to 2.6 per 1,000 between 2011 and 2013, according to the report. That includes a doubling among women, a 114 percent increase for whites and a 109 percent rise among people ages 18 to 25, the report shows. Between 2011 and 2013, about 663,000 people said they had used heroin in the past year, up from 379,000 between 2002 and 2004, said Jones, who accompanied Frieden at the news conference.
About 12 million people have used prescription opioids, Jones said, and an estimated 16,000 people die of overdoses from them each year.
Not surprisingly, most people who became addicted to heroin used other drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana and alcohol. But people who are addicted to prescription opioid pain-killers are 40 times more likely than those who aren't to become addicted to heroin, by far the greatest risk factor of any examined.
Frieden called for more judicious use of the pain-killers by physicians who, he said, should seek other ways to manage some forms of chronic pain; expanding the use of naloxone, a drug that can temporarily block the effects of an overdose; and greater efforts by law enforcement to disrupt heroin distribution networks.