Death rate from opioid epidemic could be higher than estimated, Rutgers study finds

Doctors are working to prescribe fewer opioids in Delaware. (Patrick Sison/AP Photo, File)

Doctors are working to prescribe fewer opioids in Delaware. (Patrick Sison/AP Photo, File)

Those who survived an opioid overdose in the previous year were 24 times more likely to die than the general population, according to a new study from Rutgers University.

Most notably, the study found that people who had overdosed were at a much higher risk of death in the following year from drug use-associated diseases, HIV, chronic respiratory diseases, viral hepatitis, and suicide.

It means that the fatalities associated with opioid overdoses are just a part of a larger number of deaths stemming from the national opioid epidemic.

“The deaths that we hear about are the tip of an iceberg,” said Stephen Crystal, a professor at the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University, who co-authored the study.

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Crystal said his hypothesis that the opioid epidemic is killing more people than the overdose death rate indicates could influence policymakers struggling to find solutions to the national crisis.

“We need a much more active outreach for these individuals to engage them in treatment for their drug abuse disorders, so that they don’t die of a fatal overdose [or get] the multiple health conditions that go along with having drug dependence,” he said.

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry on Wednesday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 350,000 people died from an overdose involving an opioid (including prescription pills) between 1999 and 2016.

In New Jersey, where the opioid crisis is particularly severe, the overdose death rate increased 42 percent from 2015 to 2016, the CDC said.

Also this week, Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics released a poll showing that nearly half of New Jerseyans said they or a family member had been prescribed opioids in the last year by a medical professional, a practice considered one of the drivers of the national opioid epidemic.

Of those respondents, only 54 percent remember their doctor explaining the risks of addiction associated with taking prescription opioids.

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