Heroin deaths exceeded gun homicides in 2015

Last year, more than 30,000 people died from opioid overdoses, which cause almost two-thirds of all overdoses in the U.S., according to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those data also show that last year, heroin deaths went up 20 percent, exceeding gun homicides. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, joins Alison Stewart.

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    America's opioid epidemic now claims 33,000 lives a year. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Thursday shows that opioids, including heroin and prescription painkillers, cause almost two-thirds of all drug- related overdoses in the United States. In the past year, heroin deaths went up 20 percent, and now exceed gun homicides. And since 2000, 300,000 Americans have died from an opioid overdose.

    Joining me now from Atlanta is Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


    Doctor, with so much attention being paid to heroin and opioid abuse in the recent years, why are we seeing such is alarming statistic? Really, there are two driving forces. First, doctors are prescribing way too many opioids, for too many conditions, for too long, for too many patients. And this is a major problem.

    Second, there's been a flood of illegal opioids, not only heroin, but also synthetic fentanyl and drugs that are inexpensive and widely available.

    And those two things are making a very difficult problem continue to get worst.


    There's been an issue of overprescribing. It's been addressed this year with new protocols for doctors about prescribing opioids. But there's another element to this, the mental health component. What's being done to address that?


    Fundamentally, we need to do a much better job caring for patients who have pain and caring patients who have addiction. In the case of pain, the CDC guideline makes clear that for chronic, outside of end-of-life or cancer care, opiates are not to be first line treatment and, in fact, not only do they not perform better than other drugs, but they may actually increase patients' pain in the long term.

    For addiction, we need to recognize that addiction is a chronic illness, it's a challenge, it's not easy to treat and we need to expand and make much more readily available entry into addiction treatment services.


    Has there been a health care epidemic like this in recent memory? And is there anything we can learn from the way that was addressed?


    This is very unusual. We don't see causes of death skyrocket this way in the U.S. from non-communicable diseases. It's unusual and I would say unprecedented. It's a reflection of the increase in prescribing. We've seen a four-fold increase in the prescribing of opioids and that tracks exactly with the four-fold increase in deaths from opioids

    In fact, I wish sometimes that doctors who may not know that their patient has overdosed would be informed every time a prescription they wrote results in a fatal or near fatal overdose.


    The 21st Century Cures Act was signed into law this week and there is a billion dollars allocated specifically for this issue. In your mind, where should that money go immediately?


    There is no easy answer here. There's no magic bullet to reverse this epidemic. We do need to increase the availability of treatment, so that every patient who has had an overdose gets provided the opportunity to enter addiction treatment right there and then, because we know they are at major risk for another overdose.

    We also need to look very rigorously at the treatment programs out there so that we can help them use their data to continuously improve their performance and increase the proportion of people who stay off drugs.


    Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — thank you.


    Thank you.

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