The scale of the Opioid epidemic that plagues the U.S. since 2000 may have been underestimated, according to a new report from the CDC. A previous study reported that opioid abuse was already causing 91 overdose deaths each day. But the last research shows that the number of deaths may be way higher, with most deaths listed under another cause.
By analyzing the causes of death in Minnesota between 2006 and 2015, the department of Health identified 2,253 opioid-related deaths that were recorded under other causes.
Because research show that opioid users are at increased risk of infectious disease deaths such as pneumonia, Victoria Hall, a CDC field officer, analyzed these deaths among Minnesota residents. Hall and her colleagues found that in a majority of these deaths, high opioid levels were found in postmortem toxicology screenings.
“Opioids at therapeutic or higher levels can impact our immune system,” said Hall. “It actually impacts your macrophages — so that’s one of your main immune cells that’s going to help fight off infections — and it kind of dampens them down. It also dampens down your antibody response.”
Over half of the deaths involving opioids in her study had not been captured in the state’s total of opioid deaths. It seems obvious that if it’s the case in Minnesota, it must also apply to the rest of the U.S.
The research was triggered by the strange death of a middle-aged man suffering from pneumonia. “This spring, the Minnesota Department of Health learned of a middle-aged man who died suddenly at home,” Hall said.”He was on long-term opioid therapy for back pain, and his family was a little bit concerned he was abusing his medications.” An autopsy revealed a toxic level of opioids in his system.
Opioids killed more than 33,000 people in the United States in 2015. It’s close to the number of deaths caused by traffic crashes that same year. Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription drug.
Before 2000, most opioid medications were generally prescribed to end of life patients. But an aggressive advertisement campaign from pharmaceutical companies has generalized the prescription of these dangerous addictive painkillers.