PENNSYLVANIA — In modern history, few things have caused such a sharp spike in US deaths as drug overdoses.
CNN reached out to every state for the latest statistics on drug deaths, with half providing data from 2015. It found that drugs deaths continue to rise rapidly in many states.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 Pennsylvania ranked fourth in reported overdose deaths per 100,000 people. Pennsylvania also tied Massachusetts with the greatest percentage increase in drug-related deaths from 2014 to 2015 at 28%.
Epidemiologists in several states blame the increasing number of drug-related deaths on greater use of heroin and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.
“If you look at the cause of death, we just don’t normally see increases like this,” said Robert Anderson, the chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Care Statistics at the CDC.
TOP CAUSE OF ACCIDENTAL DEATHS
Drugs are the leading cause of accidental death in this country. Fatal overdoses surpassed shooting deaths and fatal traffic accidents years ago.
For perspective on how fast drug deaths have risen, Anderson said, consider the sharp rise in heart disease in the early half of the 20th century. It took about 50 years for the rate of heart disease to double. It took drug deaths a fraction of that time.
The only thing comparable might be the HIV epidemic when it first reached the United States in the late 1980s, when there were no drugs to treat it. But unlike with HIV, where demonstrators took to the streets to demand help, the drug epidemic often happened out of the spotlight.
That might be because drug deaths have disproportionately hit small towns and rural America, mainly in Appalachia and in the Southwest, far away from the eye of the national media. It became a particularly dangerous problem for middle-age white men and women.
HEROIN’S DEADLY EFFECT
Heroin-related deaths increased 439% from 1999 to 2014. As of 2014, heroin-related deaths had more than tripled in five years and quintupled in 10 years.
In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths — 61% of all US drug overdose deaths — and 10,574 were related to heroin, in particular. Data from 2014 reflects “two distinct but interrelated trends,” the CDC notes, a longterm increase in overdose deaths due to prescription opioids and a surge in illicit opioid overdose deaths, mostly related to heroin.
In 2010, West Virginia moved into the top spot on the list of states with the highest number of drug deaths. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the number of deaths in that state increased by 12%. New Hampshire saw a 24% increase in deaths in that same time period.
The state that has struggled the longest is New Mexico. Its Rio Arriba County has the highest number of drug deaths for a single county in the United States, according to data analysis of more than 15 years of records from the CDC and state departments of health. Looking at drug death data from 1999 to 2014, New Mexico most often holds the No. 1 spot for the highest number of deaths.
The sharp uptick in deaths seems to coincide with Americans’ increasing use of drugs like illicit fentanyl.
Pop star Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April. The pain reliever is often given to cancer patients and is more than 100 times as strong as morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
STATE HIT THE HARDEST
Appalachia has struggled with a number of high-profile overdose cases recently.
West Virginia is home to six of the top 20 counties in the country with the largest concentrations of drug-related deaths. Kentucky has the most, with nine counties on that list. Ohio has also been hard-hit by the epidemic.