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Drug Overdose Deaths Hit 'Alarming' New Record in U.S., CDC Says

Vermont Battles With Deadly Heroin Epidemic

An addict prepared to shoot intravenously in St. Johnsbury Vermont. Getty Images

Deaths from opioid drug overdoses have hit an all-time record in the U.S., rising 14 percent in just one year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday.

More than 47,000 people died from these drug overdoses last year, the CDC reported.

"These findings indicate that the opioid overdose epidemic is worsening," the CDC's Rose Rudd and colleagues wrote in their report.

"The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

"The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders," he added.

"This report also shows how important it is that law enforcement intensify efforts to reduce the availability of heroin, illegal fentanyl, and other illegal opioids."

Related: Newborns Go Home With Addicted Moms and Die

The CDC is embroiled in a big fight over how to do this. It proposed new draft guidelines this month that include using every other possible approach to managing pain before giving someone an opioid such as fentanyl or oxycontin to control pain.

This wouldn't apply to terminally ill cancer patients and the proposed guidelines would be voluntary. But the pushback has been hard from patients, doctors and the drug industry, as well as groups such as the U.S. Pain Foundation and the American Academy of Pain Management.

"Those of us with chronic disabling illnesses such as lupus (which I have); RA (rheumatoid arthritis), Osteoarthritis (which I have); MS (multiple sclerosis) and all the others survive and function daily because we are able to manage our medications," one woman wrote in comments posted to the federal website.

"I am told to move and be active, but in order to be active many days, I need the additional help of my opioid medication that my dr. has prescribed. If my Dr. trusts my frequency of use through our appointments why are we considered criminals? If Aleve or Tylenol or aspirin were effective, we would not have had to have treatment with these drugs."

CDC

The CDC report sees one clear trend.

"The sharp increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids, other than methadone, in 2014 coincided with law enforcement reports of increased availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid; however, illicitly manufactured fentanyl cannot be distinguished from prescription fentanyl in death certificate data," the report reads.

But deaths are on the rise from overdoses of all sorts of drugs, despite efforts to formulate them in ways that make the drugs more difficult to abuse.

"The United States is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose (poisoning) deaths," the CDC's report reads.

"Since 2000, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses has increased 137 percent, including a 200 percent increase in the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids (opioid pain relievers and heroin)."

More people die from drug overdoses, CDC says, than in road accidents. Just under 33,000 people died in traffic accidents last year.

Last week a team at Stanford University reported that primary care physicians, not pain specialists, are by far the biggest prescribers of opioid drugs. They said sales of prescription opioids rose by 300 percent since 1999.