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Opioid Overdose Deaths May Be Underreported

We often hear about the hundreds of thousands of U.S. deaths that occur each year because of opioid abuse. But what if the actual number was substantially higher? It’s not a hard concept to wrap your head around, when you consider how many users fall off the grid and get missed in these annual tallies. Well, noted publisher The Atlantic is adding credence to that notion with an investigative piece that gets to to the heart of the problem.

Printed this past week, the Atlantic article explores the underreported fatalities that surround this growing crisis. Utilizing research provided by The University of Rochester, their piece suggests that the annual American overdose death toll of 455,000 could be off by as much as 28 percent.

Rochester researchers Elaine Hill and Andrew Bolsett led the study, which began peeling apart undetermined rural deaths from across the U.S. In many of the cases they investigated, autopsies were not being regularly performed. Certain regions would have a fatality listed as a drug overdose, but there would be no confirmation that a painkiller addiction led to the demise. Thus, these types of deaths were not counted within the larger American opioid tally.

Boslett told The Atlantic that this type of clarity is crucial in understanding the scope of the problem. Interestingly, both Hill and Boslett have economic backgrounds and have been using their research to help gauge the financial impact of the crisis.

“Our lab wants to make as strong of a claim as possible, given evidence that maybe an economic shock … had an effect on drug-overdose rates,” Boslett told the site. “We want to know that the estimates we’re using on local drug-overdose rates are correct, or as correct as possible.”

Both researchers dug through hundreds of thousands of drug overdose death certificates, even tracing back the history of individuals to see if painkiller prescriptions were in their past. The goal would be to truly tie those deaths to opioids and offer a more realistic count of U.S. fatalities.

Boslett and Hill both believe that there have been at least 99,000 unaccounted opioid deaths over the past several years. Broken out regionally, they believe the overdoses may be twice the amount estimated in states like Alabama, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Both their research work and the Atlantic article have been raising red flags among scholars and leading political reps. Atheendar Venkataramani, an influential staffer at The University of Pennsylvania, has helped bring it national attention.

“This paper is a very strong one,” he emphasized. “If you just follow the vital statistics alone, we’re probably underestimating the true number of opioid deaths.”