Opioid deaths among children, teens increasing

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jan 22, 2019 - 10:36:39 AM

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Opioid deaths are a growing problem for adults, but they are also now a growing problem for children and teens.

Nearly 9,000 children and teens died from opioid poisoning between 1999 and 2016 and annual deaths increased threefold over the 18 years, a group of Yale researchers recently reported.

“What began more than two decades ago as a public health problem primarily among young and middle-aged white males is now an epidemic of prescription and illicit opioid abuse that is taking a toll on all segments of U.S. society, including the pediatric population,” the researchers wrote in findings released in December. “Millions of children and adolescents are now routinely exposed in their homes, schools and communities to these potent and addictive drugs.”

Nearly seven percent of deaths were children ages zero to four, about four percent were 10 to 14 and about one percent were ages five to nine.  Non-Hispanic White children and adolescents made up the majority, nearly 80 percent of those who died. Hispanic youth accounted for more than 10 percent of the deaths, while non-Hispanic Black youth were about seven percent of the death total.

“While there was a decline in the death rates in 2008 and 2009 that corresponded with a decrease in prescribing trends, the rates are going up again,” explained lead author Julie Gaither in the report titled, “US National Trends in Pediatric Deaths From Prescription and Illicit Opioids, 1999-2016.”

The increase is due to a rise in heroin and synthetic opioid use among teens, explained Ms. Gaither. “This is still a problem that affects Whites and males mostly, but that is changing. Death rates among females, Blacks, and Hispanics are rising rapidly.”

According to the study, prescription opioids accounted for 73 percent of the deaths, but heroin killed nearly 1,900 (about 24 percent) of those age 15 to 19.  The bulk of these opioid deaths—nearly 81 percent of them—were unintentional. Five percent were suicides and 2.4 percent were homicides. However, for children younger than five, nearly a quarter of the deaths were labeled homicides; among infants, it was closer to 35 percent.

Many teens begin their opioid addiction with a prescription after a wisdom tooth extraction. A recent study in the JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Internal Medicine suggests that a substantial proportion of adolescents and young adults are exposed to opioids through dental clinicians. The use of these prescriptions may be associated with an increased risk of subsequent opioid use and abuse.

Research shows the teen brain is especially vulnerable to addiction because it is still maturing and developing during the adolescent and young adult years.

The Yale study findings show that despite efforts to contain the crisis among adults, more needs to be done to address the impact of opioids on children and families. For example, childproof packaging for prescription opioids used for addiction treatment, such as Suboxone, could go a long way toward protecting children, explained Ms. Gaither.

Methadone, a drug used to help adult opioid users reduce cravings, is also implicated in a disproportionate number of pediatric opioid deaths, she explained.

“As the United States is working more aggressively to treat opioid addiction, we need to consider how children and adolescents are affected by that,” Ms. Gaither said. “We need to start looking at communities and families as a whole and how everything is interrelated.”

Close to 36 percent of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. Since 1999 these deaths have increased by about five times.  Between 1999 and 2017, more than 200,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids.  In 2017 alone, there were more than 17,000 overdose deaths from prescription opioids.