March 19 (UPI) -- As the United States faces a new public health crisis with the new coronavirus, an older one -- the opioid epidemic -- might be drawing to a close.
Overall overdose death rates across the country dropped by 4.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, the last year for which data is available, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Deaths attributed to heroin use dropped by 4 percent over the same period, while those related to prescription opioid overdoses fell by 13.5 percent.
"Decreases in overdose deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin reflect the effectiveness of public health efforts to protect Americans and their families," Dr. Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC, said in a press release.
"While we continue work to improve those outcomes, we are also addressing the increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids. We must bring this epidemic to an end," Redfield said.
The findings are based on an in-depth analysis of the latest available drug overdose death data, and were published Thursday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
In all, more than 750,000 Americans died from drug overdoses from 1999 to 2018, the agency said, with opioids involved in more than 67,000 drug overdose deaths in 2018 alone.
However, of the 39 states, counties and cities included in the CDC report, 11 states and the District of Columbia all saw decreased rates of death involving opioids in general. That comes despite increases in fatal overdoses associated with synthetic forms of these drugs, which made up nearly half of all overdose deaths in 2018.
According to the CDC, death rates involving synthetic opioids -- excluding methadone -- rose 10 percent from 2017 to 2018, accounting for more than 31,000 overdose fatalities, with the largest increases seen in large central metro, large fringe metro, medium metro and small metro counties.
The latest available data show synthetic opioid-involved overdose death rates increased in 10 states, with the highest rise in rates reported in Arizona, California, Washington and Missouri.
The CDC has attributed the increase in synthetic opioid-related deaths to illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
Generally, deaths attributed to synthetic opioids increased in the Northeast, South and West, but remained stable in the Midwest. Synthetic opioid overdose-involved death rates increased among males and females, people age 25 years and older, non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics and non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islanders.
"To sustain decreases and continue to prevent and respond to drug overdoses, specifically those involving synthetic opioids, it is critical to have a coordinated response," said Dr. Debra Houry, director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
"Medical personnel, emergency departments, public health and public safety officials, substance abuse treatment providers, community-based organizations, and members of the community all play a role in addressing this complex and fast-moving epidemic," Houry said.
However, the report also found that overall opioid-involved overdose death rates decreased among females, as well as in people 15 and 34 years old and those between 45 and 54 years old. Declines also were seen among non-Hispanic whites, and in small metro and non-metropolitan areas.
And, reductions in heroin-involved overdose death rates occurred among males and females, people between 15 and 34 years old and non-Hispanic whites, as well as in large central metro and large fringe metro areas.
The CDC attributed the positive data highlighted in the report to "successes in addressing the drug overdose crisis" in 2018, including in efforts to improve opioid prescribing practices and expansion of access to naloxone, a drug used to treat opioid overdose.
The agency said it continues to work closely with the Department of Health and Human Services, among others, to prevent and respond to drug overdoses, specifically those involving opioids.
The HHS Five-Point Strategy is designed to provide better treatment, better data, better research, increased access to naloxone and better pain management.
"Efforts must be strengthened to maintain and accelerate decreases in deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin and to prevent continued increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids," said Dr. Nana Wilson, an epidemiologist at the CDC and lead author of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report analysis.