Opioid Epidemic: U.S. Midwest Bears Brunt of Drugs Crisis, as CDC Claims Overdoses Increased About 30 Percent Nationwide

Updated | The true cost of the opioid epidemic gripping the U.S. has been laid bare in new statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There was a 70 percent rise in the number of overdose cases arriving at emergency departments in the Midwest during the 14 months to September 2017.

Within the CDC's Midwest region are the states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

A recent report by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute highlighted the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic on the region's construction industry. It said opioid overdoses killed almost 1,000 Midwest construction workers, costing the local economy $5 billion.

"What makes construction so vulnerable to this epidemic is the physical nature of the work," said report author Jill Manzo. In the rush to get back to paying employment before injuries have fully healed, many workers are sucked into opioid abuse through pain relief—which can have fatal consequences.

opioid deaths
A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, on May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Across the whole of the U.S., CDC data shows there was a 30 percent rise in the number of emergency rooms treating patients for opioid overdoses.

There was a 30 percent increase in the number of men overdosing and a 24 percent rise in women turning up for treatment. There was a 31 percent rise in the number of 24- to 35-year-olds overdosing, 36 percent increase in 35- to 54-year-olds and a 32 percent jump in those 55 and older.

"People who have had an overdose are more likely to have another, so being seen in the ED is an opportunity for action," said the CDC in a statement alongside the data.

"EDs can provide naloxone, link patients to treatment and referral services, and provide health departments with critical data on overdoses. ED data provide an early warning system for health departments to identify increases in opioid overdoses more quickly and coordinate response efforts.

"This fast-moving epidemic does not stay within state and county lines. Coordinated action between EDs, health departments, mental health and treatment providers, community-based organizations and law enforcement can prevent opioid overdose and death."

Naloxone can reverse overdoses if administered quickly enough. But there are concerns the life-saving drug—which can be expensive to budget-stretched government services—is not widely available enough to first responders at the scene of overdoses, such as police officers.

Statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services show that in 2016, 116 people died every day in the U.S. from opioid abuse. That figure is expected to rise as the crisis deepens. The Department declared it a public health emergency in 2017.

Experts put the cause of the current crisis on the United States' overreliance on opioids for pain relief, stemming from the 1990s, when health care providers increased the rate at which they prescribed them at the behest and reassurance of pharmaceutical companies.

As the number of opioid addicts grew, so did the black market. Drug traffickers promptly cashed in, importing larger amounts of heroin and more recently fentanyl, an extremely strong synthetic opioid. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin.

"Illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids—primarily sourced from China and Mexico and shipped directly to the United States or trafficked overland via Mexico and Canada—are contributing factors in the current synthetic opioid overdose epidemic," according to the Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration's 2017 National Drug Threat Assessment.

"Traffickers in the United States usually mix fentanyl into heroin products and sometimes other illicit drugs, or press it into counterfeit prescription pills, often without users' awareness, which leads to overdose incidents."

Perhaps most worryingly, the number of children admitted to hospitals and pediatric intensive care units for opioid-related cases rose from 797 patients between 2004 and 2007, to 1,504 patients between 2012 and 2015. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

Correction: An earlier headline mistakenly claimed that the CDC said U.S. overdoses had tripled; the CDC said overdoses had increased by about 30 percent.