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CDC: Rate of Opioid Overdoses Increasing, Especially in Midwest


FILE - A man injects heroin into this arm under a bridge along the Wishkah River at Kurt Cobain Memorial Park in Aberdeen, Washington, June 13, 2017.

"We've got an emergency on our hands," said acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Anne Schuchat, as the agency released a report saying emergency room visits due to opioid overdose have increased an average of 30 percent nationwide.

The CDC released its report Tuesday, noting the Midwestern state of Wisconsin saw a 109 percent increase in emergency department visits due to opioid overdose between the third quarters of 2016 and 2017.

The East Coast state of Delaware followed with a 105 percent increase. Pennsylvania had an 81 percent increase.

The agency said its new numbers could help hospitals play a larger role in mitigating the opioid crisis by widening the availability of the drug naloxone, which has been shown to reverse the effects of overdose in time to save lives. It also recommended more effort be put into getting overdose patients into drug-addiction treatment and mental health services.

Anne Schuchat, Acting Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control
Anne Schuchat, Acting Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Part of that task is teaching emergency department staff to recognize the signs of drug overdose and drug addiction, so patients can be directed toward appropriate help.

It also suggested that state and local health departments use the new findings in efforts to persuade lawmakers to devote more funding and attention to conquering the opioid crisis.

Schuchat told reporters Tuesday that opioid addiction numbers are "relatively stable," but added that the substances people are taking are "more dangerous than five years ago." In addition, she said, the supply of the more dangerous drugs — including those taken recreationally — is growing fast in some parts of the country.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently declared that the use of addictive opioid painkillers is a national emergency.

However, such a declaration means little unless new funds are made available to fight the problem, Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University told National Public Radio on Tuesday.

"There's been a lot of talk from Congress and from the administration and a recognition that we need to do something about this problem," he said. "But nothing yet has happened."

The CDC analysis was based on approximately 91 million emergency room visits between July 2016 and September 2017.

Treating pain

The World Health Organization has placed some of the blame for the United States' opioid epidemic on health care providers and pharmaceutical companies, saying the epidemic is fueled by increased prescribing and sales.

The CDC says about 40 percent of opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription drug.

A separate study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that treating pain with opioids worked no better than non-opioid medications when used over a 12-month period.

The prescribing of opioids for pain ramped up in the late 1990s, the CDC's Schuchat said, increasing the incidence of opioid addiction in the United States. Addiction to prescribed painkillers can lead to use of more potent "recreational" drugs like heroin and fentanyl, which are illegally manufactured and thus of unpredictable potency.

Today, Schuchat said, even if the number of people using opioids is no longer growing, the increase in potency makes overdose more likely, and the use of opioids more dangerous.