America’s prescription drug abuse epidemic may be even more deadly than expected, a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests.
Some opioid-related deaths may be missed when people die from pneumonia and other infectious diseases spurred on by drug abuse. Their death certificates may only list the infection as the cause of their demise, explained CDC field officer Victoria Hall.
That means a number of drug-related deaths are not being counted, since surveillance systems mainly track overdose deaths.
“It does seem like it is almost an iceberg of an epidemic,” Hall said. “We already know that it’s bad, and while my research can’t speak to what percent we are underestimating, we know we are missing some cases.”
More than half of a series of drug-related unexplained deaths in Minnesota between 2006 and 2015 listed pneumonia as the cause of death, Hall and her colleagues found.
Twenty-two of these 59 unexplained drug-related deaths involved toxic levels of opioids. But the death certificates didn’t include coding that would be picked up by statewide opioid surveillance systems.
“We found if you have really profound infectious disease, like really bad pneumonia, that may be the only thing written on the death certificate. And thus it’s not going to get picked up in opioid surveillance,” Hall said.
Opioids killed more than 33,000 people in the United States 2015. That’s close to as many deaths caused by traffic crashes that same year, according to federal statistics. Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription drug.