2017 ends with yet more grim news about the nation’s opioid drug epidemic — not only that its toll keeps rising, it now is afflicting African Americans as never before. They had been less harmed by this crisis but the scourge is spreading to them, notably in spots like the District of Columbia and Baltimore.
Reporters for the New York Times’ “Upshot” feature dove into new data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on opioid drug-related deaths. They found the official numbers not only reaffirmed a sharp increase in drug fatalities in 2016 but also showed that “the drug death rate is rising most steeply among blacks, with those between the ages of 45 and 64 among the hardest hit.” As the newspaper reported:
Drug deaths among blacks in urban counties rose by 41 percent in 2016, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group. In those same counties, the drug death rate among whites rose by 19 percent. The [new CDC] data … suggests that the common perception of the epidemic as an almost entirely white problem rooted in over-prescription of painkillers is no longer accurate, as fentanyl, often stealthily, invades broader swaths of the country and its population.
Fentanyl is a painkiller that packs a huge wallop at dosages even as tiny as a few grains, and dealers of illicit drugs have been cutting the synthetic drug into the illegal wares they peddle, including heroin and cocaine. That has proved disastrous in DC, where the New York Times says the drug death rate doubled in just a year. It’s also spiking in St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Jacksonville, Fla.
Younger blacks do not appear to be abusing heroin at higher rates, and African Americans, in general, had been spared the harms of the opioid drug abuse epidemic — partly because biased physicians were reluctant to prescribe painkillers to people of color. But some older African Americans previously had become heroin addicts or coke users, the newspaper reported. They had managed to stay alive while abusing these and other illegal drugs. They now are dying of overdoses due to fentanyl or fentanyl-tainted street drugs.
Investigators already had targeted fentanyl as a new and major source in general of overdose deaths, with combating abuse of it and heroin as major fronts in the war on the opioids epidemic. The New York Times reported earlier that:
Drug deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by an upturn in deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Together they add up to an epidemic of drug overdoses that is killing people at a faster rate than the HIV epidemic at its peak.
The opioid drug abuse epidemic also takes major blame for another harsh measure of American’s health: For a second straight year, the nation’s life expectancy rate declined, due largely, experts said, to a 21 percent increase in fatal drug overdoses. As the Washington Post reported:
The United States has not seen two years of declining life expectancy since 1962 and 1963, when influenza caused an inordinate number of deaths. In 1993, there was a one-year drop during the worst of the AIDS epidemic. ‘I think we should take it very seriously,’ said Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the CDC. ‘If you look at the other developed countries in the world, they’re not seeing this kind of thing. Life expectancy is going up.’
The American life declines continue to ravage poorer, rural, and less educated areas of the country — including spots in the Dakotas and Appalachia where the “disease of despair” harms the health and well-being of Native Americans and whites, the latter a notably dispirited population who see a modern, diverse world leaving them behind.
In my practice, I see not only the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the wreckage that can be inflicted on their lives by dangerous drugs. Doctors, hospitals, drug makers, and insurers — to name just some of the many culpable parties — need to step up, pronto, with aggressive actions to halt and reverse the opioid drug abuse epidemic. The Trump Administration also should take a break from campaigning to enrich, say, by tax measures, the already wealthy and big corporations — including health insurance companies and Big Pharma — so it can provide less idle talk and real action and leadership in the fight against opioids. This is a nightmare that we must end.