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Analysis: Pandemic sees rise in drug overdose deaths among teens nationally

Drug overdose deaths are on the rise among teens in the United States, according to a new analysis. Photo by nosheep/Pixabay
Drug overdose deaths are on the rise among teens in the United States, according to a new analysis. Photo by nosheep/Pixabay

April 12 (UPI) -- Drug overdose deaths among teens in the United States have more than doubled since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an analysis published Tuesday by JAMA found.

There were 1,146 drug overdose deaths among people ages 14 to 18 nationally in 2021, up from 954 in 2020, the data showed.

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In 2019, 492 teens in this age group died as a result of a drug overdose, or roughly the same number during each of the previous 10 years.

Across all age groups, there were 101,954 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2021, up from 91,799 in 2020 and 38,329 in 2010, according to the researchers.

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"Beginning in 2020, adolescents experienced a greater relative increase in overdose mortality than the overall population," the researchers, from UCLA and Harvard Medical School, wrote.

However, "the contribution of factors unique to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as suicidal ideation, mental illness, social isolation and disruptions to illicit drug markets, cannot be discerned," they said.

Drug overdose deaths nationally eclipsed the 100,000 mark for the first time in 2020, according to figures released last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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At the same time, studies have documented a rise in suicides by drug overdose among teens and young adults.

Intentional or not, many of these overdose deaths have involved the use of illegal opioid-based drugs such as fentanyl, research suggests.

The findings of this analysis are based on a review of data from the CDC's "WONDER," or Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research database, which contains records for all deaths across the country.

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In addition to the rise in drug overdose deaths among teens in general, those involving fentanyl increased to 884 in 2021 from 680 in 2020 and 253 in 2019, the data showed.

In 2021, fentanyls were identified in 77% of overdose deaths in teens ages 14 to 18, the researchers said.

"Increasing adolescent overdose deaths, in the context of increasing availability of illicit fentanyls, highlight the need for accurate harm-reduction education for adolescents," the researchers wrote.

In addition, "greater access to naloxone" to treat overdoses "and services for mental health and substance use behaviors" can help reduce overdose-related deaths, they said.

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