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Why Data About the Opioid Epidemic Is So Unreliable

Jeremiah Lindemann wrote for Slate's Future Tense about the use of data in fighting the opioid epidemic.

Headlines about the opioid epidemic come with often staggering reports of the numbers of deaths, of overdoses, and of lives saved by Naloxone. According to data released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 52,404 total deaths in 2015, or 144 drug overdose deaths per day. Overdoses are now considered the leading cause of death of people under the age of 50, according to a New York Times analysis using preliminary data.
As staggering as those numbers are, though, there are many reasons to believe the numbers we have are unreliable. One recent study estimated that due to variations from state to state in filling out death certificates, opioid deaths may be underreported nationally as much as 24 percent. If that is true, it’s dangerous: It means that we aren’t fully grasping what is already considered an epidemic or responding appropriately. To help fight this epidemic, we need numbers that are accurate and reflective of the current moment. Community-based coalitions can have a stronger impact if they have access to timely, accurate data that reflect the situation on the ground.