Ain the midst of a crisis of opioid overdose that is accelerating in the United States, vulnerable groups that are largely ignored are children. That changed with new research at JAMA Network Open, which revealed that deaths from opioid overdoses have increased dramatically among children and adolescents over the past two decades.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has collected data on deaths from opioid overdoses for years, but the incidence of overdose among different age groups is not often studied.
In a paper published Friday, the research team analyzed CDC data found that nearly 9,000 people younger than 20 years died of prescription and illegal opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2016. During this period, the researchers observed, the death rate increased by 268.2 percent .
"What began more than two decades ago as a public health problem especially among middle-aged white men and is now an epidemic of prescription and illegal opioid abuse that takes its toll on all segments of US society, including the children's population," wrote the study author, led by Julie Gaither, Ph.D., MPH, RN, a general pediatric instructor at Yale Medical School. "Millions of children and adolescents are now routinely exposed to their homes, schools and communities for these powerful and addictive medicines."
As Upside down reported back in March, a study in the journal Pediatrics showed that the number of children and adolescents who were hospitalized due to opioid overdoses doubled between 2004 and 2015. New JAMA Open Network Studies are based on this work by breaking down data for further populations.
Gaither and his co-authors report several important findings from their analysis of 8,986 people who died during the 17-year study period:
- 88.1 percent were aged between 15 and 19
- 79.9 percent are white children and non-Hispanic teenagers
- 73.1 percent are men
And while these figures do not show it, the number of deaths due to opioid overdoses among non-Hispanic black children accounts for a greater proportion of total deaths each year. While the deaths of white children have almost tripled, the deaths of black children have almost quadrupled during the same time period.
They also found that 61.6 percent of deaths occurred outside medical facilities, with the majority of deaths – 38 percent – occurring at home. Only 10.4 percent died in hospitalization.
"To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine national data on deaths in children and adolescents from prescriptions and forbidden opioid poisoning," the study authors wrote. "Almost everything currently known about the epidemiology of fatal opioid poisoning in the United States comes from the literature of adult overdose, where it is common to exclude death in young people from analysis or group it into 1 (eg age, <25 years) or 2 (for example age 0-14 and 15-24 years) broad category. "
By sorting the available data into smaller categories, the researchers hope they can begin to explain more about the problem of opioid overdose among young people. And their data clearly shows that the problem is also increasing, because the death rate from opioid overdoses is almost three times that of all US children and adolescents between 1999 and 2016.