Death toll may have been higher had the medical team not stopped the attempt before it was too late
Two cases of people accidentally giving themselves lethal overdoses of the anti-anxiety drug Stilnox in Illinois mean the toll from the overdose epidemic in the US may have been significantly higher last year than the number reported by federal and state officials.
The deaths of Ryan Kelsall and Rob Priddy in Libertyville, Illinois, last March was the seventh record-setting overdose in Illinois in four months.
They came two months after thousands of people gathered in New York for a four-day anti-drug event known as this summer’s Overdose Prevention Summit. They were also at the time that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in October there were 11,263 drug overdose deaths in the US from July to September, the highest number on record.
Of those deaths, 6,835 of them were from opioids.
An unofficial tally by a group calling itself A Silent No More suggests that number could have been well over 1,000. Their count of overdose deaths from July to October in Illinois is based on the reported deaths and the group’s own efforts. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) declined to discuss the A Silent No More’s methodology.
“We’re talking about a significant number of overdoses here, which means the deaths should have been a significant number of deaths,” said Andrew Kolodny, director of the Opioid Policy Research Group at Brandeis University.
He added: “We’re seeing, I think, the numbers increase dramatically. And we know that there’s a relationship between the increase in overdose numbers and the uptick in distribution of these extremely dangerous opioids.”
Opioids can include legal and illegal drugs such as heroin, opioids and prescription painkillers.
The state of Illinois did not respond to requests for information about the number of deaths from April to June of last year, nor did the CDC. A spokeswoman with the Illinois Department of Public Health did not respond to a request for comment.
First responders, emergency medicine doctors and drug overdose experts have said that Stilnox overdoses in recent years have been rare but Dr Roy Subramanian, an emergency physician and adviser on emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently told an audience at the overdose summit that he was seeing more and more Stilnox overdoses.
He warned that the stilnox deaths, like those involving fentanyl, are extremely dangerous because unlike methadone, they do not raise the rate of relapse. “That’s one of the big risks,” he said.
In April, the CDC, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Administration issued a public alert about Stilnox overdoses, after a rash of the overdoses were reported in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The overdose deaths are typically described as occurring when multiple users use the medication and it is in the same container. The problem: it is not the sort of medication that can be disposed of simply by storing it under the sink in the laundry room, as heroin and other opioids can be.
Preliminary reports from the state of Illinois indicate the number of deaths involving Stilnox overdoses might be much higher than it was in 2018.
If the authorities do not take action this year, Kolodny said, at least 10 more deaths could result.
“I think there are zero errors being made in this data,” he said. “We have state data on overprescribing opioids and doctor prescribing behaviour. If we were talking about a different sort of drugs I would be doubly concerned.”