According to a new study on accidental poisonings of children aged 5 and under, the number of young children dying from opioid overdoses in the United States has increased significantly.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Pediatrics, examined a nationwide database and discovered 731 children aged 5 and under who died as a result of poisoning between 2005 and 2018. Some of the children were poisoned by over-the-counter pain, cold, and allergy medications, but opioids were responsible for the vast majority of fatal poisonings.
The trend deteriorated over time. Opioids were responsible for 24.1% (seven of 29) of the substances contributing to child deaths in 2005, but 52.2% (24 of 46) in 2018.
“It’s truly remarkable to see how different the proportions were between 2005 and 2018,” said study co-author Dr. Christopher Gaw, an associate fellow at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia whose research focuses on pediatric injury and poisoning.
Other studies have shown that the number of fatal poisonings in this age group has been decreasing since the Poison Prevention Packaging Act was passed in 1970, when harder-to-open childproof packaging became a standard for many medicines.
Prescription opioids were the drug of choice in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As guidelines tightened and more doctors and dentists became aware of the opioid epidemic, they prescribed fewer opioids, leading to an increase in the use of heroin and fentanyl.
To increase access, two independent advisory committees for the US Food and Drug Administration unanimously voted in February to make naloxone nose spray available over-the-counter. The FDA commissioner has considered those recommendations and could make a decision any day now.
According to Gaw, it is also critical for health systems to continue finding ways to limit the amount of opioids in a young child’s environment. And, he claims, if adults with substance use disorders get help, the child will benefit as well.
“It’s heartbreaking, but I think it’s important to emphasize because we don’t want children to be forgotten in this epidemic, because they’re also at risk,” Gaw said. “Their risk is related to the larger world in which they find themselves.”
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