Opioid-related deaths may be underreported, says CDC investigator

While the United States saw a record high of 33,000 opioid-related deaths in 2015, new research from the CDC suggests this tally may be short of the actual cost of life associated with the most lethal drug epidemic in American history, according to new CDC research.

The new findings were presented Monday at the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service Conference in Atlanta. For the study, a research team led by Victoria Hall, a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer based in Minnesota, examined data compiled in the Minnesota Department of Health's Unexplained Death surveillance system from 2006 to 2015. The surveillance system contains data on unexplained deaths that resulted from a possible infectious cause. Because opioid users are known to be at higher risk for contracting pneumonia, researchers sifted through the database to identify deaths possibly linked to pneumonia and other infectious diseases in which opioids may have also played a role.

"Opioids at therapeutic or higher than therapeutic levels can impact our immune system," said Ms. Hall, during the conference, according to a CNN report. "It actually impacts your macrophages — one of your main immune cells that's going to help fight off infections — and it kind of dampens them down. It also dampens down your antibody response."

Analysis of the database identified 1,676 deaths attributable to infections. Among them, 59 cases displayed evidence of opioid use. These 59 deaths were not listed among Minnesota's opioid death count. Among the 59 deaths, 22 individuals had toxic levels of opioids in their system. Pneumonia was detected in 32 of the 59 deaths.

"It's quite concerning, because it means that the [opioid] epidemic, which is already quite severe, could potentially be even worse," said Ms. Hall, according to the report. "While my data doesn't support a percent that we're underestimating, it puts out the question: Is there something we need to look into further?"

More articles on opioids: 
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Study: Nonopioids are just as effective as opioids for treating arthritis, back pain 
Gov. Cuomo signs law investing $200M+ to fight New York opioid epidemic

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