Heroin overdose deaths skyrocketed once again in the United States in 2014, according to recently released figures from the National Center for Health Statistics. Despite constant discussion in the political arena and endless promises by government administration, deaths related to heroin and to prescription painkillers continue to rise. In response to these trends, the Waismann Method Medical Group is calling on the public health community to make aggressive efforts to not only identify at-risk individuals, but also increase access to individualized mental health resources and humane heroin withdrawal treatment.

Impact of Heroin Overdose Deaths in the U.S.

The figures from the National Center for Health Statistics indicate that heroin-associated overdose deaths rose 28 percent in 2014. Over the same period, deaths from prescription painkillers rose 16.3 percent. Prescription painkillers now kill more people than any other drug class, reports the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Drug Threat Assessment. In 2014, there were 10,574 deaths from heroin overdoses and 18,893 deaths from prescription opioids.

The rapid rise in heroin overdose deaths began in 2010. Some experts believe that this occurred because a crackdown on prescription painkiller abuse began at around that time. This pushed some pain pill users to transition to heroin use. At the same time, drug cartels made a push to increase trafficking in the eastern United States and Great Lakes region. Consequently, the rate of opioid overdose deaths in 2014 has risen most rapidly in the Midwest and Northeast.

Another contributor to the problem is an increase in the use of fentanyl, an opioid 25 times more potent than heroin. Heroin traffickers are lacing the product with illegally manufactured fentanyl, resulting in an extraordinarily potent — and deadly — version of the drug.

Dr. Michael H. Lowenstein, medical director of the Waismann Method ® Medical Group, commented, “These figures from the National Center for Health Statistics are extremely discouraging. They represent a failure at every level of our public health efforts to combat opioid overdose.” Dr. Lowenstein continued, saying, “The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ will be 45 years old in 2016, yet we are seeing increased rates of heroin abuse, prescription opioid addiction, and opioid-related overdose deaths. We need a significant change in policy to invest in education, accessible mental health services, and safe, effective heroin withdrawal treatment to help affected individuals before it is too late.”

Efforts to Reverse the Heroin Overdose Trend

Public health officials at the federal, state, and local levels have been scrambling to take action to reverse the trend toward greater heroin overdose rates. These effects have primarily focused on increasing access to naloxone, an opioid antagonist drug that can rapidly reverse the deadly effects of an overdose. Many states have enacted laws that allow family members or bystanders, rather than medical personnel, to administer naloxone in an overdose emergency. In fact, New York City recently made naloxone available over-the-counter from pharmacies in an effort to combat rising rates of heroin overdose deaths.

Although naloxone can be an effective way to reverse heroin overdose, it should not remove the focus from prevention and treatment of the underlying problem. The Waismann Method ® urges public health officials to invest more money in raising public awareness about the dangers of opioids and the need for effective heroin treatment. With significant evolution of medicine in this area, medical providers like the Waismann Method Center successfully offer medical opiate detoxification while reversing dependence and treating physical cravings. As a result, this treatment gives the individual the opportunity to get proper emotional help for addiction and underlying issues.

Shifting the focus to providing immediate access to treatment of opiate addiction, rather than just emergency treatment of overdose, has the potential to save thousands of lives. This approach also decreases the social, economic, and cultural toll that opiate addiction takes on individuals, their families, and us as a society.