Figures released by US health officials show that 63,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2016, up 21 percent from the previous year. Instances of hepatitis C related to opioid injections have also spiked.
US health officials warned on Friday of an "escalating growth of opioid deaths," after official figures revealed a spike in the number of drug-related overdoses and reduction in the average American life expectancy.
A report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 63,000 people died of a drug overdose in the US in 2016, up 21 percent from the year before. Around two-thirds of those deaths were linked to opioid use, a surge of 28 percent. The majority of victims were aged between 25 and 54.
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While an overdose death usually involves a mixture of drugs, the CDC reported that heroin was linked to 15,500 deaths, while prescription painkillerssuch as OxyContin, and fentanyl were tied to 14,500 deaths.
In a statement, John Auerbach, a chief executive officer of the public health advocacy group, said: "The escalating growth of opioid deaths is downright frightening – and it's getting worse."
Fall in average life expectancy
The rise in overdoses has seen the average life expectancy in the US fall by 0.1 year since 2015.
The previous drop in the US was in 1993 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The last two-year drop was in 1962 and 1963. The previous instance before that was in the 1920s.
"Two years in a row is quite shocking," Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, told the Agence France Presse news agency. "The key factor in all this is the increase in drug overdose deaths."
Linked rise to hepatitis C infections
In a separate report, the CDC also showed how the steep rise in opioid injections had led to an increase in hepatitis C infections.
Health researchers found a 133 percent increase in acute hepatitis C cases that coincided with a 93 percent in opioid use admissions.
Trump has declared a public health emergency as the US finds itself in the midst of an opioid crisis.
"Hepatitis C is a deadly, common, and often invisible result of America's opioid crisis," said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, urging anyone who injects drugs to get tested for the disease.
Read more: Hepatitis C: an insidious virus
Calls for action
With the rising use of opioids and its consequences apparent, experts and lawmakers have called for more government action in tackling the problem.
US President Donald Trump has also highlighted the crisis, declaring it a public health emergency, a measure officials say will release federal resources to combat drug abuse. The president, however, has yet to see through his promise of declaring opioid abuse a national emergency, which would free even more funds.
Several state attorneys have also taken drug companies to court as part of their investigation into whether manufacturers and distributors have engaged in unlawful marketing practices.
dm/jil (AP, AFP, Reuters)