Life expectancy continued to decline in the United States in 2017 compared to 2014, a historical deterioration mainly due to the drug overdose crisis, but also to the rise in suicides, according to the health statistics published on Thursday.
"This is the first time we see a downward trend since the great 1918 flu epidemic," said Robert Morton, head of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics, told AFP. Anderson said the decline was much stronger in 1918.
In 2017, life expectancy at birth was 76.1 years for men and 81.1 years for women. The average population was 78.6 years old, compared to 78.9 in 2014.
In addition, they are three and a half years less than in Canada, across the border and are also affected by overdose.
"These statistics alert and demonstrate that we lose many Americans, in a very short time, of avoidable causes," said Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The scourge of drug overdose began in the early 2000s and its intensity has increased in the last four years.
In 2017, about 70,000 Americans died of overdose of drugs, 10% more than in 2016.
In terms of death, Anderson compared this situation with the increase in the HIV epidemic but with only one difference: it decreased rapidly. The statesman expects overdose to follow the same path. "We are a developed country, life expectancy must increase, not decrease," he said.
Of the 35 OECD countries, only Iceland has recently seen a decrease in life expectancy, according to figures until 2016. In the rest of the places, it has increased or stagnated.
Suicides also continued to increase in parallel in 2017 in the United States, reaching 47,000 deaths. Since 1999, the suicide rate has increased 33%.
"We have a lot of work to do to reverse these trends," said congressman Democrat Bill Foster.
– Opioids –
There are two categories of overdose. One for non-opiate drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine, and another for psycho-stimulants, for which approximately 27,000 people died.
But the increase is mainly due to the second category: opiates.
This includes heroin, morphine and the so-called semi-synthetic opiate, such as oxycodone, a prescription painkiller but sold on the black market, with the help of doctors and labs accomplices who claim to ignore the problem and which are often the gateway to addiction.
Lately, most deaths come from a new generation of drugs: synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl, tens of times more potent than heroin, with which the least dose error can be fatal. Some 28,000 Americans died in 2017 from fentanyl or similar drugs.
"The opiate market is now completely dominated by fentanyl," said The Washington Post Joshua Sharfstein, a former Maryland health official currently at Johns Hopkins University.
The mortality rate for synthetic opiates doubled between 2015 and 2016. Last year it increased by 45%.
But the 2017 figures revealed a detail that gives relative hope: the number of overdose continues to grow, but at a slower pace.
Preliminary data for 2018 even suggest that the crisis peaked earlier this year. "But it's hard to say," because there is only data for a few months now, said a cautious Robert Anderson.
In Staten Island, New York, or Dr. Harshal Kirane, director of the addiction service, avoids drawing conclusions. "It is encouraging to see that the trajectory is curved, without a doubt," he told AFP. "But 70,000 dead, it's still difficult to digest."
Not all the country is equally affected by this plague. The states of the center, from Texas to South Dakota, are relatively safe.
The crisis is acute in New England, on the northeast corner, where deaths from overdose provide more than a quarter of the donations of organs, competing with traffic accidents.
It is also very strong in two states of the old industrial belt (Ohio and Pennsylvania) and especially in the very poor West Virginia, which is ahead of the sad figure of 58 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the national average 22