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More lethal than war

| Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Signs memorializing victims of opiate overdoses were on display in front of Pittsburgh's City-County Building for International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. (Trib photo)
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Signs memorializing victims of opiate overdoses were on display in front of Pittsburgh's City-County Building for International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. (Trib photo)

“Drug overdose deaths in 2016 in the United States most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States,” according to “new data compiled from hundreds of health agencies,” reported Josh Katz in The New York Times on June 5.

Those 59.000 fatal U.S. ODs are 25,348 more than the 33,652 total U.S. battle deaths during the three years of the Korean War.

Likewise, those estimated 59,000 fatal ODs last year represent a higher death toll than the 58,220 fatal U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam War's 16 years, 1959-75.

Among the earliest casualties, on July 8, 1959: Army Maj. Dale Buis and Army Master Sgt. Chester Ovnand were ambushed in a Viet Minh strike on an American military compound 20 miles northeast of Saigon.

On May 15, 1975, two weeks after the American evacuation of Saigon, Kelton Turner, an 18-year old Marine killed in action, was the last fatal U.S. military casualty of the Vietnam War.

And those estimated 59,000 fatal U.S. ODs in 2016 surpassed the 53,402 U.S. military deaths in World War I.

Unfortunately, that figure of 59,000 underestimated the number of fatal U.S. ODs in 2016.

Writer and graphics editor Katz returned to the topic in his Sept. 2 Times article, “The First Count of Fentanyl Deaths in 2016: Up 540% in Three Years.”

Katz reported that “the first governmental account of nationwide drug deaths in 2016 shows overdose deaths growing even faster than previously thought.” Overdoses “killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year,” he reported.

“It's a staggering rise of more than 22 percent over the 52,404 drug deaths recorded the previous year — and even higher than The New York Times's estimate in June, which was based on earlier preliminary data.”

A worse killer than cancer or heart disease, “drug overdoses are expected to remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, as synthetic opioids — primarily fentanyl and its analogues — continue to push the death count higher,” Katz reported.

“Drug deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by an upturn in deaths involving cocaine and methamphetamine. Together they add up to an epidemic of drug overdoses that is killing people at a faster rate than the H.I.V. epidemic at its peak.”

In World War II, the deadliest war in the history of humankind, American battle deaths totaled 291,557 in five years, 1941-45 — an average of 58,311 per year, less than the current number of fatal U.S. ODs per year.

“To put things in perspective, since 9/11, drug overdose deaths have killed 5,000 in Southwestern Pennsylvania,” explains Dr. Neil A. Capretto, medical director at the Beaver County-based Gateway Rehabilitation Center.

“Can you imagine if we had a serial killer killing one-tenth that number of people?” Capretto asks.

“Make no doubt about it, we do have a serial killer in our community, and it is addiction.”

Ralph R. Reiland is associate professor of economics emeritus at Robert Morris University and a local restaurateur (rrreiland@aol.com).

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