Bill Kinkle hasn’t worked as a nurse in nearly a decade. But the Pennsylvania man never leaves home without emergency medical supplies.
Always on his belt: naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose and save a life.
Kinkle, who lives in the Philadelphia suburb of Willow Grove, says his own life has been saved by naloxone more than once.
Nearly 15 months into recovery from heroin addiction, he also carries a card telling others where they can get help. His message, he says, is that “people can recover, they do recover, and they are worth the effort.”
Kinkle handed out those cards at two Philadelphia libraries last month as they hosted what the Pennsylvania state health department called the largest naloxone giveaway ever. About 80 sites participated statewide.
It was just one effort among many, by governments, organizations and individuals, to fight a drug overdose epidemic that killed more than 52,000 Americans in 2015, 63,000 in 2016 and 70,000 in 2017.
2018 might have been a turning point.
“Every year for 23 years, we’ve set a new record for overdose deaths,” says Andrew Kolodny, who researches opioid policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. But if provisional data from the first half of 2018 hold up, he says, “it could be the be the first year in 23 years that deaths don’t increase.”
Kolodny points to provisional data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest update shows that deaths peaked at 72,775 during the 12-month period that ended in October 2017. Opioids were responsible for nearly 50,000 of those deaths.
After that, the running 12-month total declined slightly each month through May 2018, before ticking up slightly to 70,652 in June 2018. Preliminary data from the second half of the year are not yet available.
“While we don’t yet know if 2018 is going to show a decrease, we’ve got a pretty good inkling that it’s at least not increasing as rapidly,” says Lauren Rossen, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
If 2018 was a turning point, there’s still a long way to go.
The crisis began with a wave of prescription opioid overdose deaths in the late 1990s. A second wave emerged with surges in heroin deaths in 2010. The third wave, still crashing over the country, started with a spike in deaths linked to powerful synthetic opioids, especially illicit fentanyl, in 2013, CDC data show.
Fentanyl deaths kept rising in the first half of 2018, provisional data show.
“The number of deaths is still huge,” says Daniel Ciccarone, a physician who studies opioid use and supply patterns at the University of California, San Francisco.