Opioid Deaths Undercounted By 70,000 Since 1999: Study

As health officials continue efforts to combat the opioid abuse epidemic in the United States, new research suggests that the number of overdose deaths may be widely under-appreciated, finding that more than 70,000 deaths over the past two decades may not have been counted as part of the opioid crisis. 

In a study published in the medical journal Society for the Study of Addiction, researchers from the University of Virginia warn the opioid epidemic may be even worse than previously believed.

Researchers indicate that from 1999 to 2015, at least 70,000 more people died from opioid overdoses than were originally unaccounted for.

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In recent years, the opioid epidemic has worsened. A report published in April indicated opioid overdose suicides may be much higher than current estimates suggest. In fact, opioid overdoses are severely underreported nationwide, according to another study. Those findings are in line with the conclusions of the newest data.

Researchers analyzed death records and focused on specific codes assigned by the National Center for Health Statistics, the International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes. The codes indicated the cause of death and whether opioids were involved.

The study determined some states did not correctly classify drug overdoses. Instead, the states are broadly classifying the overdoses and those involving opioids were not counted or indicated properly.

Researchers counted overdose deaths by state and year. The analysis indicated in some states as many as one-third of all drug overdose deaths were not counted properly.

In five states, more than 35% of overdose deaths had unspecified codes, not clearly indicating whether the death was an opioid overdose. Those states included Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, and Mississippi.

Pennsylvania had the most unspecified overdose deaths. In Pennsylvania, more than half of the deaths were not classified.

Nearly 440,000 people died from unintentional drug overdoses from 1999 to 2015. Researchers indicate this is an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths of more than 400%.

Similarly, unspecified overdose deaths increased by 220%.

The new report indicated overdoses which were misclassified varied widely from state to state. The analysis found 16 misclassified opioid-related overdose deaths in Vermont, yet more than 11,000 in Pennsylvania alone.

More than 42,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016 alone, a 30% increase from the year before. The analysis often reclassified 25% or more of deaths as opioid deaths instead.

In 2015, data indicated opioid overdose deaths had hit a new high, yet since then, rates have continued to climb. New research indicated opioid deaths now outnumber breast cancer fatalities and account for two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths in the United States.


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