Steve May 2, 2022
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American Indians, Alaska Natives see 5-fold rise in overdose deaths, study finds

American Indian and Alaska Native communities have seen higher rates of deaths caused by drug overdoses than other populations, a new study reports. File photo courtesy of West Virginia Attorney General’s Office/Twitter

May 2 (UPI) — The opioid overdose death toll has increased more than five-fold among American Indian and Alaska Native communities over the past two decades, a study published Monday found.

Nearly 800 opioid-overdose deaths among American Indian and Alaska Natives in the United States occurred in 2019, up from fewer than 100 in 1999, data published Monday by BMJ Open showed.

Men of American Indian and Alaska Native origin were about 50% more likely to die from an opioid overdose compared to women, the researchers said.

The rise in overdose deaths outpaced a roughly 30% rise in the cumulative populations of these communities, to nearly 2.3 million in 2019 from 1.8 million 20 years earlier, they said.

“Deaths due to opioids … in the American Indian and Alaska Native community have increased significantly over time,” Fares Qeadan, a co-author of the study, told UPI in an email.

“Therefore, it is important that substance use treatment programs, interventions and policies consider complexities surrounding polysubstance use and improved access to … treatment,” said Qeadan, an associate professor of biostatistics at Loyola University Chicago.

When a person takes a drug to increase or decrease the effects of a different drug or wants to experience the effects of the combination of the two, this is called intentional polysubstance use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, when a person takes drugs that have been mixed or cut with other substances, such as fentanyl, unknowingly, this is called unintentional polysubstance use, the agency says.

Both forms of polysubstance use have been linked with an increased risk for overdose and death as a result, research suggests.

More than 100,000 across the United States died of drug overdoses in 2020, according to recent estimates, and that number is expected to rise over the next decade.

Many of these deaths have involved opioids, a class of drugs that includes prescription pain relievers as well as “street” drugs such as heroin, according to the CDC.

Earlier this year, Native American tribes reached a $590 million settlement with prescription drug distributors over lawsuits alleging their involvement in the so-called opioid crisis.

Qeadan and his colleagues reviewed national death records data from 1999 to 2019, focusing on overdose deaths involving opioids alone or opioids combined with other drugs, such as alcohol or methamphetamine, among American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 12 years and older.

Over the 20-year period, overdose deaths from opioids alone in these communities rose more than five-fold, to 16 per 100,000 people in the general population, from three per 100,000, in men, and to 26 per 100,000, from five per 100,000, in women, the data showed.

All overdose deaths involving opioids increased to 34 per 100,000 American Indian and Alaska Native people in the general population from five per 100,000 during the same period, the researchers said.

Overdose deaths due to opioids plus alcohol or benzodiazepines or methamphetamine also spiked — up to 1,000%, over the course of two decades, they said.

Analysis of death rates attributable to specific types of opioids showed that those caused by heroin and prescription opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl increased, as well, according to the researchers.

“Our findings highlight how severely this community has been hit by the opioid crisis and continues to face rising levels of overdose mortality due to the use of opioids alone and in combination with other substances,” Qeadan said.

“To address this issue, policymakers should advocate for interventions for American Indian and Alaska Native populations that are comprehensive, culturally centered and address … socioeconomic factors and racial and ethnic discrimination,” he said.

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