Amid the continuing opioid crisis in the United States, a new report highlights the thousands of young victims that have died in recent years due to opioid poisoning, including a growing number of very young children.
Yale researchers published a study last week in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, warning that pediatric opioid poisonings are growing at an alarming rate. While most of the child opioid poisonings involved teens between the ages of 15 and 19, an alarming number of toddlers and adolescents are also dying from the powerful pain medications.
The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) issued a report in November, indicating that 72,000 people in the U.S. died of opioid overdoses in 2017; a rate of about 200 overdoses per day. Every year since 2011, drug-related deaths have outnumbered deaths by firearms, auto accidents, suicides and murder.
In this latest study, researchers note that children have not been spared by this opioid epidemic. Researchers looked at serial mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) involving 8,986 children and adolescents under the age of 20 who died in the U.S. from 1999 to 2016.
According to their findings, 88 percent were between the ages of 15 and 19, and a little less than seven percent were age four or under. However, the researchers found that, during the study period, the overall pediatric mortality rate increased from 0.22 deaths per 100,000 children, to 0.88; which represents an increase of 268.2 percent.
The study also found a steady linear increase in deaths among all ages. Children four and under saw a 225 percent increase in opioid deaths. Teens between 15 and 19 saw a 252 percent increased mortality rate; while children between the ages of five and nine saw a 100 percent increase, and those between the ages of 10 and 14 experienced a 150 percent increased death rate.
Researchers found that 80 percent of the deaths were unintentional. However, among children younger than five, nearly a quarter were labeled as homicides. Most of the deaths involved prescription opioids.
The study notes that most of the laws in the U.S. battling the crisis have focused on adults, and few have focused on protecting children, who they say are dying from opioid poisoning at a rate of about 500 per year.
The researchers pointed to a lack of child proof packaging on some opioid products, like fentanyl patches, as a sign of a lack of adequate regulation. However, they warned that the lack of stringent laws, and even the lack of data, is contributing to increasing child opioid deaths as a whole.
“It is important to address the deaths seen in the youngest children (age, 0-4 years), a highly vulnerable group for which the consequences of the opioid crisis has been somewhat overshadowed by opioid-related morbidity among neonates and older teens,” the researchers concluded. “We found that children aged 0 to 4 years had the second-highest mortality rates overall as well as the second-largest increase in rates over time. A large percentage of the deaths were due to homicides and intentional harm. Further research is needed to determine what roles abuse, neglect, and parental substance abuse—specifically, opioid abuse—play in these deaths.”
Yale researchers issued a similar report in 2016, warning then that child opioid deaths had doubled. Another report by poison centers across the U.S. the same year indicated that more than 3,000 reports are received each month at poison control centers involving opioid poisonings.