The only thing comparable might be the HIV epidemic when it first reached the United States in the late 1980s, when there were no drugs to treat it. But unlike with HIV, where demonstrators took to the streets to demand help, the drug epidemic often happened out of the spotlight.
That might be because drug deaths have disproportionately hit small towns and rural America, mainly in Appalachia and in the Southwest, far away from the eye of the national media. It became a particularly dangerous problem for middle-age white men and women.
HEROIN’S DEADLY EFFECT
Heroin-related deaths increased 439% from 1999 to 2014. As of 2014, heroin-related deaths had more than tripled in five years and quintupled in 10 years.
In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths — 61% of all US drug overdose deaths — and 10,574 were related to heroin, in particular. Data from 2014 reflects “two distinct but interrelated trends,” the CDC notes, a longterm increase in overdose deaths due to prescription opioids and a surge in illicit opioid overdose deaths, mostly related to heroin.
In 2010, West Virginia moved into the top spot on the list of states with the highest number of drug deaths. From 2014 to 2015 alone, the number of deaths in that state increased by 12%. New Hampshire saw a 24% increase in deaths in that same time period.
The state that has struggled the longest is New Mexico. Its Rio Arriba County has the highest number of drug deaths for a single county in the United States, according to data analysis of more than 15 years of records from the CDC and state departments of health. Looking at drug death data from 1999 to 2014, New Mexico most often holds the No. 1 spot for the highest number of deaths.
The sharp uptick in deaths seems to coincide with Americans’ increasing use of drugs like illicit fentanyl.
Pop star Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April. The pain reliever is often given to cancer patients and is more than 100 times as strong as morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.