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CDC Report Sheds Light on Heroin Epidemic

Thursday, July 16th, 2015
Thomas Frieden

Thomas Frieden, M.D., Director of The Centers for Disease Control

The Centers for Disease Control released a report on the current trends and risk factors behind Americans’ growing heroin epidemic.

According to the new research, the greatest increases have occurred in groups with historically lower rates of heroin use, including women and people with private insurance and higher incomes.

The people most at risk include non-Hispanic whites, men, 18- to 25-year-olds, people with an annual household income less than $20,000, Medicaid recipients, and the uninsured. But gaps between men and women, low and higher incomes, and people with Medicaid and private insurance have narrowed in the past decade.

The report also found that people using heroin are abusing multiple other substances, especially cocaine and opioid pain relievers. Nearly all (96 percent) people who reported heroin use also reported using at least one other drug in the past year.

All told, NPR reports, more than half a million Americans used heroin in 2013. That represents a nearly 150 percent increase since 2007. In 2013 alone, more than 8,200 Americans died of heroin overdoses.

And that may even be an underestimation, NBC News points out:  The report captures the data of thousands of Americans, but misses information for the military, the homeless, and prison populations.

heroin-graph_1185px CDC

Centers for Disease Control Infographic

Tom Frieden, M.D., head of the CDC, says the heroin crisis is arising from prescription drug misuse, especially opioid painkiller use. People who abuse painkillers are 40 times more likely to abuse or be dependent on heroin, the study finds.

“They are addicted to prescription opiates because they are essentially the same chemical with the same effect on the brain as heroin,” Frieden told a news conference. “Heroin costs roughly five times less than prescription opiates on the street.”

Users say they move to heroin after they get addicted to prescription drugs—often during use for a medical condition, with a legitimate prescription—and then their supply dries up.

Frieden said “an urgent all-society response” is needed. It would include:

  • Tracking the use of prescription painkillers and making sure doctors only prescribe them as necessary.
  • Providing treatment to individuals who are addicted to these drugs.
  • Cracking down on smuggling and street sales of heroin, to drive up the price and discourage abuse.
  • Increasing the use of naloxone, a drug that can be injected into someone with a heroin overdose to reduce the risk of death.

Dr. Frieden also emphasized that for “chronic, non-cancer pain, you really have to look at the risks and benefits” of using prescription opioid pain relievers. “And the risks are very, very clear.”

He said alternatives include safer non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen; physical therapy, and even ice.

Source: Centers for Disease ControlNew research reveals the trends and risk factors behind America’s growing heroin epidemic

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  • Paul

    I think you should provide a counter viewpoint to your piece on Phoenix House. Too much negative press gives congressmen ideas about easy to pass legislation. I imagine it doesn’t hurt Phoenix’s funding to express only the bad news and Phoenix has no requirement to be unbiased. Of course there are many people who need their services, and there is obviously a huge crisis with opiates. The problem is it is presented in a way that suggests no one can resist the addiction and that it is crazy to use opiods for even intense pain, much less chronic pain. But now it sounds like reefer madness has set in. Read the research yourselves. The WA and CO state guidelines are based on some good and some potentially biased research and some reasonable conclusions along with some perhaps innocent misunderstandings of the scientific research. And even several pain specialists I have worked with don’t seem to understand these guidelines. I haven’t researched all of the CDC findings yet, but so far, without questioning that some type of reform is needed, I will say that many of the players have a dog in this fight. I am constantly surprised that the experts in this area are never more than book-smart. So few have experienced chronic severe pain and the mental effects of that (many think they have, and many have a story of how they got through it, but EVERYONE has a limit), so few have taken opioids for more than two weeks, so few realize that after a few weeks the mental fogginess and any euphoria go away, while the pain reduction can continue for many months or years without any high. Some Dr’s seem to have read their texts while high. One pain specialist Dr told me an overdose occurs when you have a cold, and one drink of alcohol can kill you even days afterwards. As someone who depends (no pun) on these drugs to function, since being run over by a truck years ago, this is not humorous. I have used narcotic medications for 15 years now without a single incident of misuse, misdirection, overdose, or craving. NSAIDS helped until I got an ulcer from them. Normally, no one would know I am taking narcotic medication. I am a safe driver, lucid in conversation, and a good role model. Without these medications, I cannot drive or think clearly, conversations are difficult, many days I can’t walk, and life is a living hell. There are no surgical options I qualify for. If you look at a few blogs, you will find similar stories. I think the tricks to no craving and no addiction for me have been 1) a strict policy of pain reduction only, never complete pain relief, which means my brain nevers associates the drugs with pleasure, only function and 2) not being able to increase my dose without the consent of my Dr. I have never used heroin or any other drugs illegally, save a bit of pot in college. I always lock up my meds when I leave my house and when we have any guests. I’m a dad and husband, and I just want to enjoy my family rather than lie in a bed moaning. Severe chronic pain affects families too. Please don’t allow a one sided dialog to ruin it for the large number of responsible narcotic users. We are not all addicts, and there are many of us who use them safely, and would like to continue to do so. Thank you.

  • ljohnson

    Thank you for your comment, Paul. We do not suggest that everyone with a painkiller prescription will become addicted to the medication or use heroin; however, it is possible to become addicted to opioids even by taking the medication exactly as prescribed by a doctor. This is why it is important for doctors to use caution and notify their patients of the risks. For more information, please see the Centers for Disease Control’s full report: –Liana Johnson, Phoenix House