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Opioid Epidemic Could Get Much Worse Before It Gets Better

In a recent analysis performed by STAT News, it is estimated that the 33,000 people who succumbed to fatal opioid overdoses in 2015 could climb to as many as 94,000 by 2027 – that's nearly three times the number of fatal overdoses in a period of only 12 years, and a sobering reminder of just how bad this epidemic has truly become. It has gotten to the point where 90 people were dying in the U.S. every day in 2015 from a fatal overdose. That number can grow to 250 people per day by 2027.

This is, of course, a worst-case scenario, but in a situation like this, it never hurts to plan for the worst in an attempt to mitigate it before it gets even more out of control than it already is. If this worst-case scenario comes true, then that would mean that over 650,000 people could be lost to fatal opioid overdoses (and this number does not include any other drugs, like alcohol, cocaine, or meth) over the course of the next 10 years.

To give it even more perspective, this estimation is almost as many Americans as will die from breast and prostate cancer over that same period, according to STAT's Max Blau. Put another way, says Blau, opioids have the potential to kill as many Americans over the next decade that HIV/AIDS has taken since the HIV/AIDS epidemic started back in the early 1980s. Conversely, STAT's best case scenario has the number of fatal opioid overdoses dropped to just over 21,000 by 2027, but the numbers still get worse before they get better, and they still hover around 300,000 in the next ten years.

On average, the total number of deaths related to opioid overdoses forecasted by STAT total to nearly 500,000 over the next ten years. Whether we see the worst or best-case scenario depends largely on how we as a country choose to react to the epidemic. Will our doctors stop overprescribing opioids? They have made strides, but the numbers there are still high, too. Should states be stricter in their monitoring and regulating prescriptions? Should states supply more Narcan? Will law enforcement be successful in stopping fentanyl and similar products from entering the country?

If the answer is yes to these questions, then we have the potential to prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths in the coming years. Unfortunately, though, it appears we may be heading in the wrong direction on these issues. One of the major signs pointing to this is the fact that Congress is currently considering a healthcare bill that would repeal Obamacare. If this happens, tens of millions of people would lose their insurance. This means that hundreds of thousands of people who are addicted to opioids would lose their access to addiction treatment.

We have boosted some funding for drug treatment, but it desperately needs to be more. The $1 billion over a two-year period that we have allocated thus far falls far short of the tens-of-billions of dollars proposed by experts who say that much money is necessary to effectively combat the problem.