ATLANTA — Tom Price didn’t mince words.
“We lose a Vietnam War every single year to drug overdoses,” Price said. “… It must be stopped.”
That warning, from the secretary of Health and Human Services, reached a receptive audience here last week at a national conference on drug abuse. As Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts put it: “The terrorist threat families in America see is not in the streets of Aleppo. It’s fentanyl coming down your street.”
The depth of the crisis is clearly visible in new data on drug overdose deaths released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The data cover all drugs, not just opioids. But the CDC’s maps vividly depict how the opioid epidemic — prescription drugs, heroin, and, more recently, fentanyl — swept the nation over the past decade.
In 1999, New Mexico had the worst drug overdose rate in the nation: 15 deaths per 100,000 people. Fifteen years later, that death rate would seem modest indeed. The highest drug mortality rate in 2014, in West Virginia, stood at 35.5 per 100,000 people.
By the following year, the drug death rate in West Virginia had climbed higher still, to 41.5 per 100,000.
The CDC’s data also show how the epidemic moved across the country. Back in 1999, the states with the highest drug overdose death rate were concentrated in the West: New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona. Six years later, the epicenter had reached the South: Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Florida.
By 2014, the epidemic had shifted to Appalachia and the Rust Belt: West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. That trend grew even more pronounced the following year.
“I certainly worry we haven’t hit the worst point,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, a psychiatrist from Atlanta and the head of the American Medical Association’s task force on opioid abuse. “Until treatment for substance-abuse disorders is fully funded, I worry we won’t be able to reduce the number of overdose deaths.”