The USA accounts for almost one-quarter of all estimated drug-related deaths worldwide. Mostly driven by opioids, overdose deaths in the USA have more than tripled during 1999–2015 (from 16,800 to 52,400 a year).

This means a rate of 245.8 deaths per million people aged 15–64, according to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Putting these figures into perspective, more people die from the misuse of drugs in the USA than from road traffic accidents; and there were approximately 35,000 motor-vehicle deaths in 2015.

The 2017 World Drug Report provides a global overview of the supply and demand of opiates, cocaine, cannabis, amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances (NPS), as well as their impact on health.

“A problem in many countries, the harm caused by opioids is particularly evident in the United States of America,” the UNODC concludes. One of the most dangerous opioids is a derivative of the prescription medicine fentanyl, which is responsible for causing fatal overdoses among opioid users.

This news will not come as any surprise to workers at the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office where fatal overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids are surging.

This week they were forced to move more than 20 corpses into a refrigerated trailer, which had been designed as a portable morgue for mass disasters. Equipped 5 years ago by a Homeland Security grant, the trailer was intended for anything from a terrorist attack, plane crash or an outbreak of a pandemic disease.

Now, the St. Louis County medical examiner is considering using the trailer full-time to store the overflow of bodies from drug deaths.

If this pace of deaths from overdose continues, St. Louis County’s medical examiner, Dr Mary Case, foresees using the makeshift morgue on an ongoing basis. “I think it’s a very real possibility,” she said. “Our storage facilities are strained to the limit.”

Opioids remain the most harmful drug type and account for 70% of drug use disorders worldwide, says the UNODC.

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