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Oklahoma overdose deaths rise again

Oklahoma City — Drug overdoses in Oklahoma increased again in 2016, and the situation could get much worse.

In Oklahoma, 813 people died from overdoses, a rate of 21.5 deaths for every 100,000 people last year.

Nationwide, 63,600 people died from overdoses in 2016, with 42,249 of those deaths tied to some form of opioids. That comes out to 19.8 deaths for every 100,000 people, more than triple the rate in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Projections from the Trust for America's Health warn that more people could die from overdoses in the future. Even the most optimistic scenario the report entertained shows deaths increasing, though at a slower rate than they have in recent years.

Under the worst-case scenario projection, Oklahoma could have as many as 31.7 deaths from drug overdoses for every 100,000 people in 2025. If Oklahoma's population remained at its current size, more than 1,200 people could die of drug overdoses in a single year.

The report rolled out a host of recommendations to avoid that future, including teaching children and teens positive coping strategies to make them less vulnerable to drug use; increasing the availability of drug and mental health treatment; educating prescribers about alternative ways to manage pain; reducing drug smuggling; encouraging patients to turn in unused drugs; and expanding access to naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.

John Auerbach, president and CEO of the trust that compiled the report, said current efforts to reduce opioid prescribing are welcome, but they won't address other factors that contribute to drug use, like economic anxiety, discrimination and social isolation.

“It's necessary but insufficient” to change prescribing, he said. “There's the availability of a substance — alcohol, opioids, etc. — and there's the conditions that make people vulnerable.”

Drug deaths began increasing in the 1990s after OxyContin, a commonly abused painkiller, was introduced, Auerbach said, but other “deaths of despair” not related to opioids also increased. Deaths from alcohol and suicide also have gone up nationwide, though not as quickly as drug-related deaths.

“We need a comprehensive approach that doesn't just put a Band-Aid on the problem,” he said.

Life expectancy falls

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday that life expectancy had fallen in 2016, from 78.7 to 78.6 years. It was down for the second consecutive year.

Life expectancy is the average years a person can expect to live from a certain point, and has generally increased for the last century because of improved health care, better sanitation and lower rates of smoking. The last time it decreased for two years in a row was 1962 and 1963.

Because life expectancy is an average, it conceals wide variation. Some babies born in 2016 will live to celebrate their 100th birthday. Others came into the world too early or small, and will slip away within weeks. And some will live through childhood before drugs cut their life short.

It's the human condition that we all will die, and the CDC builds that into rather dry calculations that reveal our society's overall health. A population with a high number of 80-year-olds will have more deaths than a young population, even if everything possible goes right, so death rates are adjusted to tell if the population is getting sicker, or just older.

The rates reveal a strange dichotomy. People over 65 are living longer, on average. While heart disease and cancer still kill more people than any other causes, people were living longer with those diseases, or dying of something else. The same thing happened with five other diseases that tend to strike older people.

Younger people weren't so fortunate. Death rates increased in people ages 15 to 44, with the sharpest spike in the 25 to 34 age group. At least some of the premature deaths were due to “unintentional injuries,” which rose to the third-most common cause of death in 2016.

The rate of opioid-related deaths, which are counted as unintentional injuries unless the coroner finds evidence of suicide, increased 21 percent from 2015 to 2016. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl drove much of the change. For the first time, more people died of fentanyl and similar drugs than from heroin or prescription pills.

While the level of drug deaths is higher than ever, the problem isn't unprecedented — there are parallels to the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, Auerbach said. People with HIV needed health education and ways to reduce the impact of risky behaviors, and they also needed to know they wouldn't be discriminated against because of their illness, he said.

“It wasn't enough just to work on one aspect of HIV,” he said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›