A new study reveals the number of young children who were hospitalized from opioid poisonings more than doubled between 1997 and 2012. The study, published at JAMA Pediatrics, looked at youths between the ages of 1 and 19.
Among the findings: Between 1997 and 2012, a total of 13,052 prescription drug–related hospitalizations were recorded around the nation. The yearly incidence for opioid poisonings for those between the ages of 1 and 19 rose by 165 percent; for those between the ages of 1 and 4, it rose by 205 percent. Those between the ages of 15 and 19 saw an increase of 176 percent in hospitalizations from opioid poisonings during this time frame.
The study concluded that over the past 15 years, the upsurge in hospitalizations due to opioid poisonings has left “young children and older adolescents most vulnerable” and that “comprehensive strategies” are called for to help mitigate the risks.
Most of the poisonings in minor-aged children were due to accidental ingestions. Some of the older teens who were admitted to the hospital, however, were found to have taken the drugs purposely, as suicide attempts.
“Opioids are ubiquitous now,” Yale University postdoctoral fellow Julie Gaither said in an NPR interview. “Enough opioids are prescribed every year to put a bottle of painkillers in every household. They’re everywhere and kids are getting into them.”
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, the number of opioid fatalities across all age groups has grown over the last decade to the point where 78 people on average die from overdose each day. Between 2000 and 2014, almost half a million people died from drug overdoses, CDC reported.
“We now know that overdoses from prescription opioid pain relievers are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths,” the CDC reported in an Understanding the Epidemic website post. “Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled … Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone—have also quadrupled since 1999.”
West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio have been hit particularly hard. In June, the Wall Street Journal, citing government statistics, found the overdose deaths for West Virginia, the worst state for drug-related fatalities, stood at nearly 36 per 100,000 people in 2014. In New Mexico, the second highest state for drug-tied deaths, the overdose rate was almost 28 per 100,000 people for that same year.
The White House and Congress have stepped in to slow the overdosing.
President Obama, in July, signed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed by a bipartisan vote in Congress. He said the new law included “modest steps to address the opioid epidemic” but expressed frustration that Republicans had successfully stripped $920 million in addiction assistance funding from the final version.
Obama wasn’t the only one dismayed at the loss of funding.
“The AAP supported [the] Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act intended to curb opioid addiction and change the national perspective on how pain is managed and substance abuse is treated, but expressed disappointment at the lack of needed funding for the bill’s provisions,” said Thomas McPheron, manager of public relations and communications at the American Academy of Pediatrics, in an email. “The passage of CARA represented an important first step by the U.S. Congress in attacking this issue.”
McPheron said AAP’s stance is to continue to fight for more funding.
Congress, meanwhile, has offered up several bills in recent months aimed at going beyond the scope of CARA or in some cases freeing up money to help with existing addiction and recovery efforts.
But at least one medical professional warned of the potential for overlegislating, saying opioid regulation shouldn’t ever reach the point where physicians are afraid to prescribe them to those with serious chronic pain.
“The drugs themselves are not bad drugs,” said Kathleen Neville, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the chief of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. “It’s how they’re prescribed.”
She said that the proper reason for prescription opioids is to help with severe pain and that in certain cases there are no substitutes that work.
“I would argue that for moderately severe pain, there are other things that may alleviate the pain,” she said. “But for amelioration of severe pain—that’s opioids. I have seen some suffering in my career, and there are no alternatives in these cases.”
As for the uptick in the incidence of opioid hospitalizations and overdoses among youths, Neville said the statistics are clear: Most of those stem from prescriptions to adults. And that’s where the efforts to combat opioid addictions and misuse need to focus, she said.
“For wisdom teeth, do we really need an opioid? Maybe aspirin would work instead,” Neville said. “I really hope to see prescriptions go down in adults because that’s where children’s addictions come from. For mild to moderate pain, there are other alternatives.”