More than 70,000 opioid-related deaths were not counted in the U.S., a new study estimates, suggesting that the epidemic may be more severe than previously thought.
The country is in the throes of an opioid crises that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the last several years however, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health believe numbers have been dramatically underestimated, U.S. News & World Report noted.
Statistics may have been masked by death certificates that didn't specify which drugs were involved in the fatal overdoses, meaning that more than 70,000 opioid-related deaths occurring across the U.S. between 1999 and 2015 may have been concealed.
The study suggested that in states such as Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, the number may be more than double the current estimate, with more than 35 percent of deaths related to overdose not being linked to any specific drug.
"Proper allocation of resources for the opioid epidemic depends on understanding the magnitude of the problem," said lead author Jeanine M. Buchanich, research associate professor in Pitt Public Health's Department of Biostatistics, in a statement.
"Incomplete death certificate reporting hampers the efforts of lawmakers, treatment specialists and public health officials. And the large differences we found between states in the completeness of opioid-related overdose mortality reporting makes it more difficult to identify geographic regions most at risk."
Researchers sifted through data between 1999 and 2015 and lumped deaths into three categories: opioid-related, non-opioid-related and unspecified codes.
They then calculated the change in percentage of overdose deaths that fell into each category by state and determined how many of the unspecified overdose deaths were likely opioid-related.
The team found that, in 17 years, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths increased by 401 percent while non-opioid-related overdose deaths rose 150 percent, and unspecified overdose deaths spiked by 220 percent.
In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency and announced a five-point strategy to combat the opioid crises.
The department reported that, in 2016, opiods caused more than 42,000 deaths, although this statistic could now be much higher if Buchanich's team is right.
CNN reported that the number of opioid prescriptions issued by doctors increased from 112 million in 1992 to 282 million in 2012.
Addressing the situation, the House recently approved legislation designed to give healthcare providers more tools to stem an opioid crisis killing more than 115 people in the United States daily.
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