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US drug overdose deaths fell for first time since 2018: data


Drug overdose deaths in the United States declined last year for the first time since 2018, provisional data released Wednesday showed, suggesting the strategy of increasing access to the life-saving medicine naloxone could be working.

There were an estimated 107,543 such deaths in the country in 2023, down three percent compared to the year before — with the decline driven by a drop in deaths associated with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

America’s opioid crisis has its roots in the 1990s with the aggressive marketing and over-prescription of opioid painkillers like OxyContin.

The current surge in overdose deaths is largely driven by illicitly manufactured fentanyl — primarily produced in China and smuggled into the United States through Mexico — often mixed with stimulants including methamphetamine and cocaine.

Joseph Friedman, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, told AFP he was cautious about interpreting provisional data, which were revised to show differing final totals.

“However, big picture, what is clear is that the death rate is currently leveling out compared to prior increases,” he said.

“Many factors are likely playing a role here, including scaling up addiction treatment, making naloxone more available, as well as the spread of fentanyl virtually exhausting new places to take hold,” Friedman added.

President Joe Biden’s government has made expanding access to the opioid overdose reversal medicine naloxone a centerpiece of its policy to combat overdose deaths, making it available in schools, workplaces, airports and more.

Friedman said it was important to note that part of the reason fentanyl deaths may be leveling out was simply because access had reached a saturation point in several states.

“Although the apparent leveling off from past increases in deaths is encouraging, there are no signs that the fundamental structural drivers of this crisis have changed considerably,” he said.

And while deaths among white Americans have declined, they continue to rise among Black and Native Americans, highlighting the need to reduce barriers to services, and stabilize people exposed to fentanyl on safer opioids, he said.

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