Heroin-related overdose deaths continue to rise, presenting the public health and criminal justice systems with an evolving set of challenges, and prompting increasing use of a life-saving antidote, federal officials say.
Nationwide, 8,260 people died of heroin overdoses in 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in January 2015. That represents a 39% increase over 2012, when there were 5,927 deaths, and extends the trend of rising fatalities that began in 2011.
By comparison, the overall number of drug overdose deaths increased 6% in 2013, up to 43,982 from 41,502, according to CDC statistics. Prescription drugs continued to account for more than half of the fatal overdoses, with opioid analgesics – painkillers – involved in most of those deaths.
“Deaths from drug overdose are tragic, and we need to scale up both prevention and treatment of addiction,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in a statement. “Most people who use heroin in the U.S. today used prescription opioids first.”
Overdose deaths involving cocaine were up 12% year-over-year, from 4,404 in 2012 to 4,944 in 2013.
Drug poisoning deaths have increased annually since at least 2008, when there were 36,450 fatal overdoses, CDC statistics show. There were 3,041 heroin-involved fatalities nationwide that year.
To combat the rise of overdose deaths involving heroin and prescription painkillers, federal law enforcement officials are touting the use of naloxone, a medication that can quickly restore respiration. By providing emergency personnel with precious time to initiate lifesaving measures, naloxone can lessen the likelihood of overdose victims suffering brain injury.
The Law Enforcement Naloxone Toolkit was created by the U.S. Department of Justice and is available through the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s National Training and Technical Assistance Center. The toolkit provides public safety and law enforcement officers with a host of resources, including instructions on how to use naloxone, where it can be acquired and how it should be stored.
Police officers in Quincy, Massachusetts, were the first to begin using naloxone in 2010 as part of a pilot program. At least 19 states had created naloxone programs as of fall 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In May 2014, New York law enforcement officials announced the awarding of more than $1.1 million in funding to equip 19,500 New York Police Department officers with naloxone kits. A month later, two police officers in Staten Island used a nasal spray to administer the life-saving antidote to a 25-year-old woman who had overdosed on heroin.
“Another life saved by NYPD officers equipped w/ Naloxone,” the city’s police commissioner, William J. Bratton, tweeted after the incident.