A 5-year study of homeless people shows that drug overdoses, in particular heroin and painkillers, have become the number one cause of death among homeless people.
The study was conducted by Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) and Massachusetts General Hospital. They found that drug overdoses were the leading cause of death among the homeless between 2003 and 2008 in Boston.
In total, the study found drugs were responsible for one third of all the deaths of homeless people between 25 and 44-years-old. While this figure is just for the Boston area, the researchers say these statistics are applicable across the United States of America.
Travis Baggett, MD, MPH, of the MGH Department of Medicine and BHCHP, who led the study said, “Our findings are an unfortunate reminder of the high mortality rate of homeless people and a clarion call for the need to address the epidemic of drug overdose deaths in this vulnerable population. Overall, young homeless people died at a nine times higher rate and middle-aged homeless people at a four-and-a-half times higher rate than comparably aged adults in Massachusetts."
In the study of 28,000 homeless people, the results show that 17% died from drug overdoses while just 6% died from complications due to AIDS. This is a complete about face from the last survey conducted between 1988 and 1993.
The study also found that homeless people between 25 and 44 are nine times more likely to die than members of the normal population. This makes drug addiction the next possible epidemic for the homeless population.
It also means the homeless population are in a terrible position if there is a new illness spread by drug use. As they are the least likely to have access to medical insurance and the most likely to share needles, any new disease could quickly spread out of control.
To help prevent this and stem the tide of overdose deaths, the authors of the study have three recommendations. The first is to create public initiatives to help prevent and reverse drug overdoses. They also advice that more must be done to help end homelessness. Finally the authors say there must be behavioural health integration into primary medical care.
Baggett said “Our results highlight the dire need to expand addiction and mental health services and to better integrate them into primary care systems serving homeless people. They also suggest that, while health care services like BHCHP can help improve the health of homeless people, they probably are not enough. Making a major impact on mortality for these patients will also require addressing the social factors that contribute to homelessness in the first place."