Teenage drug overdose deaths have increased exponentially for the first time in history during the COVID pandemic

The overdose death rate among American teenagers nearly doubled in 2020, the first year of the COVID pandemic, and increased another 20% in the first half of 2021 compared to the 10 years before the pandemic, even if the consumption of drug has remained generally stable over the same period, according to a new study from UCLA.

This is the first time in recorded history that the drug-related death rate among adolescents has seen an exponential increase, even as rates of illicit drug use among adolescents are at an all-time low, the author said. principal Joseph Friedman, addictions researcher and MD and Ph.D. candidate at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

“Drug use is becoming more dangerous, not more common,” Friedman said. “The increases are almost entirely due to illicit fentanyls, which are increasingly found in counterfeit pills. These counterfeit pills are spreading across the country, and teens may not realize they are dangerous. »

The study is published in JAMA.

The researchers used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (CDC WONDER) database to calculate drug overdose deaths per 100,000 population among adolescents ages 14 to 18 that occurred from January 2010 to June 2021.

They found 518 deaths, or a rate of 2.4 per 100,000, among adolescents in 2010, and a constant rate of 492 deaths (2.36 per 100,000) each subsequent year through 2019. In 2020, it there was a sharp increase to 954 deaths (4.57 per 100,000). 100,000), rising to 1,146 deaths (5.49 per 100,000) at the start of 2021.

Disaggregated by ethnicity and race:

  • Among Native Americans/Alaska Natives, there were 11 (4.86 per 100,000) deaths in 2010, 14 (6.88) through 2019, 16 (7.87) in 2020, and 24 (11 .79) in 2021
  • Among Black/African Americans, the numbers were 24 (0.70 per 100,000) in 2010, 46 (1.49) through 2019, 114 (3.69) in 2020, and 96 (3.10) in 2021.
  • Among Latinos, they were 62 (1.38) in 2010, 136 (2.68) until 2019, 276 (5.35) in 2020 and 354 (6.98) in 2021.
  • Among whites, they were 412 (3.32) in 2010, 281 (2.50) until 2019, 521 (4.67) in 2020 and 604 (5.36) in 2021.

A small number of people belonged to racial/ethnic groups that were not listed in the article, or simply had missing racial/ethnic details, which explains the discrepancy between the death and rate totals and the racial/ethnic breakdown. ethnic.

Fake versions of prescription drugs such as Xanax, Percocet and Vicodin, which can fluctuate in strength, have also contributed to the rise in overdose deaths, Friedman noted.

“Teenagers urgently need to be educated about this growing danger,” Friedman said. “Accurate information on the risk of drugs must be presented in schools. Teenagers should be aware that pills and powders pose the highest risk of overdose because they are most likely to contain illicit fentanyls. Pills and powders can be tested for the presence of fentanyls using test strips, which are increasingly available. »

Additionally, education and access to naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, are needed in schools and places frequented by adolescents, he said.

The results are limited by certain factors. Among them, the observational nature of the study design cannot establish causality, race and ethnicity may have been misassigned, the 2021 results were provisional and included scaled values ​​from January to June, and there were small numbers in some of the groups studied. Additionally, the role of suicidal ideation, social isolation, and other pandemic-specific factors could not be established.

The UCLA Medical Scientist Education Program, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (K01-DA050771), and the Korein Foundation funded this research.

The study’s co-authors are Chelsea Shover, Dr. Helena Hansen and Dr. David Schriger of UCLA; Morgan Godvin of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council in Portland, Oregon; and Joseph Gone of Harvard University.

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