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Among developed nations, U.S. is No. 1 in overdose deaths

A person in a striped shirt holds a pill bottle and empties two red and blue pills into their hand.

Dec. 6, 2018—It's yet another statistic that shows just how bad the nation's opioid crisis has become: The rate of drug overdose deaths is higher in the U.S. than in other developed countries. That's according to new research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute examined death records from 13 countries. Besides the U.S., the other countries were Australia, Chile, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Wales. The researchers looked only at death records for people ages 20 to 64.

Among the key findings:

  • Overdose deaths more than doubled in the U.S. between 2001 and 2015. The rate is now more than twice as high as those of the 12 other countries that were part of the study.
  • In the U.S. in 2015, drug overdoses caused an estimated 35 deaths per 100,000 men and 20 deaths per 100,000 women. That year, Mexico had the lowest death rates.
  • Drug overdose deaths didn't just rise sharply in the U.S. They also went up in several other countries. This suggests that the problem may be growing around the world, the study authors said.

What's behind the deadly rise?

A major factor is the opioid epidemic, which has arrived in the U.S. in three distinct waves, the study's authors said. The first wave, related to prescription opioids, hit in the late 1990s. Then came heroin deaths in 2010, followed more recently by a wave of deaths linked to synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl).

And yet there was also a bit of good news from the study: Overdose deaths declined in four countries over the study period. This trend was led by Norway. The study's authors suggested that we may be able to learn from what has worked in these other nations.

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