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Young opioid abusers in the United States are not getting medicine for their addiction

The number of teenagers and young adults in the United States abusing opioid medication is growing but only around one in four are being prescribed medication to help combat their addiction, research published in JAMA Pediatrics[1] (online, 19 June 2017) shows.

Abuse of opioids often begins in adolescence or early adulthood but early intervention with buprenorphine or naltrexone can prevent relapse, overdose, premature death and lifelong harm.

The researchers used a national commercial insurance database of 9.7 million young people, aged 13–25 years, and identified 20,822 young people diagnosed with opioid use disorder (0.2 %) between 1 January 2001 and 30 June 2014. Those diagnosed had an average age of 21, and the rate of diagnosis increased nearly six-fold between 2001 and 2014.

Overall, 5,580 (26.8%) of the 20,822 young people were dispensed a medication for their addiction within six months of diagnosis, with 89.2% receiving buprenorphine and 10.8% naltrexone.

The proportion of young people prescribed a medication increased more than ten-fold between 2002 and 2009, from 3% to almost 31.8%. However, the proportion then declined to 27.5% in 2014, despite opioid use disorder diagnosis rates continuing to increase.

Analysis of the characteristics of those prescribed the drugs revealed that younger people, girls, and non-Hispanic black and Hispanic youth were less likely to receive medications.

The researchers say: “In the face of a worsening opioid crisis in the United States, strategies to expand the use of pharmacotherapy for adolescents and young adults are greatly needed, and special care is warranted to ensure equitable access for all affected youth to avoid exacerbating health disparities.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2017.20203018

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