A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the number of overdose deaths decreased in 2018, the first time in nearly 30 years. From 1990 through 2017, the number of overdose deaths in the U.S. increased every year, with more than 70,000 overdose deaths recorded in 2017. According to preliminary government statistics reported last month, about 68,000 people died of overdoses last year.
Experts believe that increased access to naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, is a main factor in the decrease. Naloxone first went on sale in 1971 as an injection and was approved in an easier-to-use nasal spray version called Narcan in 2015. The medication can restore the breathing of those who have overdosed on an opioid, which includes heroin, certain prescription painkillers, and fentanyl.
Prescriptions of naloxone are soaring across the U.S. Policies at local, state and federal level allow anyone who might encounter an overdosing person to have access to naloxone, including drug users, police, and librarians. According to the CDC report, the number of prescriptions of naloxone dispensed more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, rising from 271,000 to 557,000. There were fewer than 1,300 naloxone prescriptions dispensed in 2012.
Another reason for the decline in overdose deaths may be that fewer painkiller prescriptions were written last year. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of painkiller prescriptions declined from 49 million to 38 million. The CDC recommends that naloxone be prescribed to patients who are getting high-dose opioids and are at risk for an overdose. Currently, only one naloxone prescription is written for every 69 high-dose opioid prescriptions.
The CDC report concluded that increased access to naloxone would help decrease the number of overdose deaths going forward. The CDC said, “Efforts to improve naloxone access and distribution work most effectively with efforts to improve opioid prescribing, implement other harm-reduction strategies, promote linkage to medications for opioid use disorder treatment, and enhance public health and public safety partnerships.”