Medical experts have been talking about America’s opioid epidemic for some time. With as many as 91 overdose deaths a day, it’s hard to dispute this health crisis. A new study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that this number may be underestimated.
Victoria Hall, a CDC field officer in Minnesota, and fellow researchers investigated the records of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Unexplained Death surveillance system, called UNEX, for deaths reported from 2006 to 2015. Hall presented her research findings on Monday, April 24th at the annual Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference in Atlanta. Hall said that over half of the deaths that were captured by UNEX, and involved opioids, were not found in Minnesota’s opioid surveillance data.
Some opioid-related deaths, Hall explained, may be missed or misinterpreted when people die from complications due to pneumonia and other infectious diseases brought on by drug abuse. In some cases, the death certificates only list the infection as the cause of death.
Past research has shown that infectious diseases like pneumonia can be made worse with the presence of opioids in the person’s system. Opioids cause shallow and slowed breathing, causing less coughing, but potentially leading the infection to settle in the lungs.
- Among the 32 cases of pneumonia investigated, 9 had a history of substance abuse, 6 suffered from chronic pain, and one of them was on methadone.
“Unfortunately, while I can’t speak to the magnitude of how much are we underestimating, it does seem like it is almost an iceberg of an epidemic,” Hall said.
- Out of the more than 1,600 deaths that fit the criteria for research, 59 (or 3.5%) presented evidence of opioid use.
- Those 59 deaths were not found in the state’s opioid surveillance system because they did not have the appropriate ICD-10 code.
- 22 of the deaths involved highly toxic levels of opioids, according to research findings.
- These overdose deaths spanned across adults of all ages (16 years to 82 years) and ethnicities, in both rural and urban areas.
“Opioids don’t discriminate against the young or the old, men, women, rural or urban areas. We find it in all these areas. And with the amount of opioids being prescribed, quadrupling in the last decade, it makes for a very complex public health threat that we really need to address from a lot of different angles to gain a deeper understanding of this epidemic.” said Hall.
The sad reality is that the United States is in the midst of a public health crisis that is only predicted to get worse. Without proper awareness, education, and access to opioid addiction treatment, the fate of future generations is unknown. Getting treatment for an opioid addiction requires a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach that includes both safe detox medications and individualized behavioral therapy.
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