Fentanyl-related deaths in children have increased 590% over the last decade

In 2021 alone, the opioid was to blame for 93 deaths of small children between the ages of one and four.

A new report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics revealed that more than 5,000 children have died from fentanyl overdoses in the past two decades. More than half of these deaths occurred in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2013 to 2021, the overall rate of fentanyl-related deaths increased by 3,740%. Among children four years old and younger, opioid-related deaths increased by 590% during that time period. Among those aged 15-19, deaths related to this drug rose 290% between 2018 and 2021.

The study’s author, Julie Gaither, assistant professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine, used death certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and evaluated fentanyl deaths over two decades.

Most deaths are "unintentional"

In 2021, fentanyl was to blame for 93 deaths among children aged 1 to 4. Linda Richter, senior vice president of Partnership to End Addiction noted:

It's really hard to get data on exactly what happens with the younger kids, but anecdotal evidence is that it only takes a small amount to be deadly. So small kids can touch the drug and then put their fingers in their mouths.

The report detailed that almost half of the deaths occurred in the home and, most were considered unintentional. That is, children were unaware that the substances they were using contained fentanyl, and very young children may have touched or ingested drugs used by their parents. According to Richter:

There is a general consensus that the overdose deaths involving fentanyl among kids, whether young kids or teens, are primarily unintentional. ... Among younger children, access to pills or substances laced with fentanyl that are left within their reach is the main culprit. ... For older adolescents, the culprit is more likely a lack of awareness that the pill they are intentionally taking contains fentanyl.

More adults are exposed to fentanyl

The report detailed that one of the main factors influencing the upward trend in fentanyl deaths is that more adults now have easy access to the opioid due to its abundance on the illegal drug market.

Richter said that "this analysis adds to the growing body of studies showing just how pervasive and tragic the fentanyl crisis is." In 1999, about 5% of opioid deaths were due to fentanyl. By 2021, the figure had increased to 94%. Deaths peaked in 2020 and 2021, according to the study, suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the opioid crisis.

The government must ensure that Narcan is available for free

Richter said the government should ensure that drugs such as Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses, are free or affordable for all citizens. He indicated that the population must have the capacity to use it and pointed out that the stigma surrounding its purchase must be reduced:

Availability of fentanyl test strips for people who do use drugs and a wide scale campaign to have Narcan [naloxone] available in homes, schools and all public places in the event of an overdose is also needed. ... Most importantly, we need better substance use prevention and more accessible treatment for those who use drugs in order to reduce the likelihood that they will take a drug that contains fentanyl or have those drugs within reach of children in the home.

In addition, Richter commented that parents should be educated about the need to keep all substances and medications in the home out of reach and out of sight of children:

In addition to addressing the contamination of the drug supply with deadly fentanyl, we need a broad education effort for adults and teens about the proliferation of fentanyl in the drug supply and its lethal potential.