Written by CNN Staff
As the opioid epidemic persists, new data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a record high increase in overdose deaths and the highest number of drug overdoses since the agency began keeping track.
From 2016 to 2017, the US mortality rate increased nearly 8% as 10,690 people died from an opioid overdose, according to the study. Overdose deaths rose by more than 3,100 over the previous year, which was the second highest increase in more than two decades.
“While most people think of opioids as being drugs like Vicodin or OxyContin that are prescribed by physicians for conditions like pain, they’re a lot more dangerous than that,” said Dr. Katherine Woodward-Fein, lead author of the study and professor of public health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Although physicians prescribe them for legitimate purposes, they’re mixed with counterfeit drugs or street drugs and people can die from them.”
Woodward-Fein also said that if a person with access to pain medications doesn’t want to take them, there are alternatives, like taking ibuprofen and paracetamol.
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The number of deaths attributed to opioids also increased among all age groups, but an increased overdose rate in children is perhaps the most disturbing finding.
Between 2016 and 2017, approximately 5,700 children between the ages of 0 and 17 died from an opioid overdose. In all, children accounted for 6.3% of the total overdose deaths in the United States.
To focus on children’s overdoses, the researchers examined all opioid overdose deaths that were reported from the death investigations of 67 metropolitan areas between 2016 and 2017. The areas were represented by 6,171 deaths and included nonfatal and fatal overdoses in all age groups. The regions are often known to have higher rates of opioid overdose than the rest of the country.
Several factors were behind the significant rise in the rate of unintentional opioid overdose deaths for children. In addition to the growing number of opioid prescriptions, Woodward-Fein said that pediatricians are less likely to prescribe medication to children as opioid pain relievers became the preferred treatment for children with chronic pain.
“Prescribing opioids can be very addictive so they become the go-to medicine for chronic pain if you don’t have other options,” she said.
However, while many kids take their medication prescribed to them by a doctor, such as a generic equivalent to opioids prescribed for adults, many do not.
“Children can be just as at risk for opioid overdose as adults,” Woodward-Fein said.
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Meanwhile, the numbers of deaths from overdoses involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine, has been steadily increasing and shows no signs of slowing. From 2015 to 2016, the rate of fentanyl-related deaths increased more than 500%.
“The increase in fentanyl death rates in children during this recent time period was staggering, due in part to the new epidemics that emerged in 2017,” Woodward-Fein said. “Although it’s important to note that the mortality rates have remained stable in adults, both children and adolescents are at risk for dying from fentanyl overdoses as the threat from fentanyl for adolescents grows.”
Fentanyl is often fatal for children who have taken the drug from an older sibling or friend who may be more likely to get high from the substance. However, children may accidentally consume the drug.
“If adults purchase fentanyl from a dealer and put it in their person, they’re more likely to take it,” Woodward-Fein said. “And if they do, children can get into it and become very ill. This is why it’s best to keep it out of reach of children.”
Other children may be exposed to the drug by passing it around the family, which Woodward-Fein said can be particularly dangerous for babies and children under the age of 1.
A large number of deaths involving fentanyl also involved accidental poisoning from medications people were taking, such as psychotropic drugs, muscle relaxants, antidepressants and sedatives.
Even before the CDC finalized its opioid epidemic report in June, politicians had been eager to take credit for the rise in deaths.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, published a press release on June 26 pointing to the findings as evidence that he was “working hard to make America safer from opioids and heroin.” He cited the rise in overdoses as an example of the “success of the common-sense reforms” he has pushed for since 2011.