Is the Opioid Crisis Worse Than We Thought?

addiction to opioids

New research on the opioid crisis published by Addiction journal shows that the opioid epidemic’s numbers are as much as shows that overdose deaths might be as much as 28% higher than previously reported. A significant number of deaths may have been left out of reporting for several years.

Where Are The Unreported Deaths?

In Alabama, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Indiana, the actual final numbers of deaths may have been previously underreported by as much as 50%.

Nearly 72% of “unclassified drug overdoses” that occurred between 1999-2016 involved prescription opioids, heroin, or fentanyl. However, due to the victims having other drugs in their systems, they are marked as “unclassified”, even if it’s most likely that the opioids killed that person. For example, a person with Oxycontin and marijuana in their system might have their death left unclassified, even if it’s very unlikely that marijuana killed them. All in all, the number of unclassified deaths during the opioid crisis was estimated at 99,160.

These deaths remain unclassified due to swamped coroner’s offices and slow death investigations. In many cases, no one thing is considered to be the main cause of death. This is especially true for people with other health conditions or those who take multiple medications in addition to opioids.

What Are the Effects of Underreporting?

Federal money and state money could have been diverted to fight the epidemic, but when numbers are underestimated those funds go elsewhere. Those funds are often needed in the hardest-hit areas of the country – places where overdoses have reached epic proportions and coroner offices are unable to meet the demands.

“A substantial share of fatal drug overdoses is missing information on specific drug involvement, leading to underreporting of opioid-related death rates and a misrepresentation of the extent of the opioid crisis,” said Elaine Hill, Ph.D., the senior author of the study. “The corrected estimates of opioid-related deaths in this study are not trivial and show that the human toll has been substantially higher than reported, by several thousand lives taken each year.”

With the new information, states may be able to justify diverting additional funds to places where opioids are most heavily used.

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