Study: States Might Be Undercounting Opioid Deaths By As Much As 70,000

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

Researchers suggest state health officials might be “greatly underestimating” the opioid crisis, finding a possible 70,000 uncounted deaths since 1999.

Many opioid overdose victims are getting lost in the official count due to incomplete cause-of-death reports, a study from the University of Pittsburgh published Wednesday in the journal “Public Health Reports” suggested. Unspecified drug-overdose deaths jumped from 2,255 in 1999 to 29,383 in 2015, an increase of 220 percent, reported Gizmodo.

Overall, unintentional drug overdoses killed 438,607 people between 1999 and 2015. Over this period, deaths linked to opioids experienced a 401-percent increase, while non-opioid related overdose deaths increased by 150 percent.

The researchers, using data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), used the proportion of opioid-linked deaths among the overall population of drug deaths to estimate how many fatalities listed as “unspecified” could be tied to opioids. (RELATED: Global Opium And Cocaine Production Has Never Been Higher)

Applying this standard, the researchers “reallocated” roughly 70,000 unspecified drug deaths between 1999 and 2015 as possibly linked to opioids.

“States may be greatly underestimating the effect of opioid-related overdose deaths because of incomplete cause-of-death reporting, indicating that the current opioid overdose epidemic may be worse than it appears,” the researchers said in the study conclusion.

Opioid overdose made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug-overdose deaths in 2016, claiming roughly 42,249 lives, according to data released in December 2017 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Addiction experts previously expressed fear the opioid death toll is likely higher than the official statistics show, pointing to research suggesting federal data might be undercounting opioid deaths by as much as 20 percent.

“It’s even worse than it looks,” Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, previously told The Washington Post. “We could easily be at 50,000 opioid deaths last year [2016]. This means that even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”

The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S., officials say. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.

Overall, drug overdoses are the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016.

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