Overdose deaths from both prescription opioids and heroin increased in 2011, the most recent year available, say new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. While prescription opioid deaths followed a more than decade-long trend and increased by about 2 percent from 2010 to 2011, to 16,917; heroin deaths jumped by about 44 percent in the same span of time to 4,397.
CDC said the increase in heroin deaths may be partly due to users having less access to prescription opioids and switching to the illicit drug. Leonard Paulozzi, a CDC physician and researcher, said 75 percent of heroin users say they started out by using prescription opioids. The increasing number of heroin deaths supports anecdotal reports that heroin deaths are on the rise. Lewis Nelson, a physician and professor of emergency medicine with NYU Langone Medical Center, said the lack of a decline in opioid deaths is especially concerning. “It’s obvious that the lag in reporting is always a problem, but we’ve been talking about this for a decade,” he said. “The most aggressive actions started in 2011 and 2012, but it’s still amazing to me that we’ve known about this problem for so many years. It should have been better by 2011.”