The number of overdoses among youth aged 10 to 18 more than doubled in the United States between 2019 and 2021, according to a study released Thursday by U.S. health officials, who particularly warned against the risks of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl.
The average monthly teen overdose rate increased by 109% between 2019 and 2021, according to this work from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the number of overdoses involving illegally manufactured fentanyl has increased by 182%.
Illicit drug use among teenagers generally declined during this period, suggesting that this increase in deaths was likely caused by “more potent drugs,” not more frequent use, the study notes.
Fentanyl, an ultra-potent and addictive synthetic opiate, is easily produced at low cost in the laboratory. This drug has gradually flooded the American market.
According to the study, about a quarter of teen overdoses were linked to counterfeit pills, often in the form of Oxycodone (a pain reliever) or Alprazolam (an anxiolytic sometimes known by the brand name Xanax). This percentage is likely an underestimate, as the pills found at the scene of the overdose are not always tested.
“The proliferation of counterfeit pills that look like prescription drugs but actually contain illegally manufactured fentanyl, and the ease with which these pills can be purchased on social media, has increased the risk of fatal overdoses among young people,” health officials warned.
“It is not clear if the teenagers were trying to take drugs they thought were real or if they knew they were counterfeit,” they added.
A total of 1,808 teenage overdoses were reported between July 2019 and December 2021 in 31 US states and the nation’s capital for which data could be analyzed.
The median rate of deaths per month was 32.5 between July and December 2019. It rose to 68 per month in the same period in 2021. An increase of 109%.
“Urgent action is needed” to prevent these deaths, pleaded the CDC, the nation’s main public health agency.
Among the recommendations listed: Strengthen prevention campaigns that draw attention to the dangers of counterfeit pills, but also make young people better aware of the existence of tests to detect the presence of fentanyl or the antidote naloxone, which can block the effects of opiates and can be administered by a relative in the event of an overdose.