When it comes to the lives of children, prescription opioids have a lot in common with loaded guns. Both opioids and guns in the home pose a serious risk of injury and death to children and teens, and both are responsible for hundreds of accidental deaths every year.
But unlike weapons, prescription opioid drugs in the home are a relatively new threat, and a new Yale analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows how big the problem has grown.
The study’s authors, from the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, found that opioid overdose deaths tripled among kids since 1999 as both illicit and prescription forms of the narcotic became more pervasive in the home and in society. The study is the first to quantify the impact of opioid drugs on youth younger than 20.
Between 1999 and 2016, opioid drugs killed nearly 9,000 kids younger than 20. The age group hardest hit by opioids was 15-19 years old, researchers found. But the toll of opioid overdose on children younger than 9 years old is also climbing steadily, CDC researchers found.
The researchers say that lawmakers aren’t doing enough to address the risks that opioids present to the youngest members of society.
“The underrecognition of the risks that prescription and illicit opioids pose to children and adolescents is reflected in the current policies and practices in place in the United States today,” the authors write in the report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). “Of the hundreds of state and federal initiatives enacted to contain the opioid crisis, nearly all focus on adults.”
The authors said that the lack of childproof packaging for many commonly prescribed opioids is a particular danger, especially when even a minimal exposure can lead to respiratory arrest and death.
“For example, both Suboxone (the combination form of buprenorphine and naloxone), a medication used to treat opioid addiction, and Duragesic (the transdermal pain patch of fentanyl) come in foil wrappers that can be easily opened by a child,” the authors said. “Suboxone is no longer sold in pill form because of concerns over pediatric exposures, but in its current formulation—which consists of brightly colored film strips—it still poses a danger to children.”
In 2015, there were about 33,000 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. The next year, deaths exceeded 43 000—more than for any other year on record.
“That Americans continue to die in unprecedented numbers from prescription opioids and, increasingly, heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, despite aggressive public health measures to contain the crisis, speaks to the complexity and evolving nature of this epidemic,” the study’s authors said.