Fatal overdoses are reversing recent health gains


The following editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Tuesday, Jan. 26:

A national heroin and opiate epidemic has reversed health gains — especially among white Americans — that have resulted from medical advances. Drug overdoses are driving up death rates for young white adults to levels not seen for decades.

Findings from recent public health studies underscore the need for more intense prevention and treatment practices, as well as bolstered electronic databases that track the dispensing of opioids.

Young white people, ages 25 to 35, make up the first generation since the Vietnam era of the mid-1960s to experience higher death rates than the previous generation. Meanwhile, death rates for young African-Americans are falling.

In 2014, the overdose death rate for whites, ages 25 to 34, was five times the 1999 level, while the rate for 35-to-44-year-old whites tripled, according to a New York Times analysis.

Overdose deaths for young black adults have edged up, but only slightly. Overall, a decline in deaths from AIDS has contributed to a falling death rate for African-Americans. As a result, the former chasm between death rates for blacks and whites has shrunk by two-thirds.

Even among whites, death rates for those with less education rose much faster than for those with college degrees. Public health agencies must find more effective ways of targeting education and prevention efforts to lower-income people with less education.

Education programs, targeted at both patients and physicians, can cut the abuse of prescription painkillers that can lead to heroin use. For those already addicted, medication-assisted treatment has shown far higher recovery rates.

Addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers is reversing the strides many Americans have made in overall health. Without more intense treatment and prevention, the epidemic will only grow.

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