Researcher Says Our Opioid Death Stats Are Way Off

There may be 24% more deaths than we think
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 8, 2017 12:11 PM CDT
The Opioid Crisis May Be 24% Worse Than We Thought
This July 6, 2017, file photo shows seized prescription drugs displayed in a glass flask in the controlled substance room of the Utah state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah.    (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

The CDC statistic is a harsh one: Ninety-one Americans die from opioid overdoses—that number includes heroin and prescription opioids—every day. A University of Virginia researcher claims we're undercounting. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimates that opioid- and heroin-related mortality rates were 24% and 22% greater than reported between 2008 and 2014. Dr. Christopher Ruhm arrived at those figures after reviewing thousands of death certificates for those who suffered a fatal overdose during that period, reports NBC News. This issue involves the death certificates themselves. States like Vermont, Virginia, and South Dakota identified the specific drug more than 95% of the time.

But in states like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Mississippi, that figure didn't quite hit 50%. Overall, in 2008, no drug was identified 25.4% of the time; in 2014, it was 19.5%. And so Ruhm used statistical analysis to estimate how many of those deaths would have been from heroin and opioids; the University of Virginia explains Ruhm compared high- and low-reporting certificates from areas with similar demographics to do so. One big takeaway, per Ruhm, is that some states have more severe problems than thought. He points to Pennsylvania, which the CDC lists as 32nd among the 50 states for opioid deaths in 2014; Ruhm's study puts it at No. 7. His study didn't knock West Virginia from the No. 1 slot, but it did up its opioid death rate by about 1.3%. (Nashville's mayor was frank about her son's overdose death as she returned to work.)

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