Cause of death and drug use pattern in deceased drug addicts in Sweden, 2002-2003

Anna K Jönsson, Per Holmgren, Henrik Druid, Johan Ahlner
Forensic Science International 2007 July 4, 169 (2-3): 101-7
Compared with their contemporaries, individuals abusing illicit drugs suffer a higher risk of premature death. In Sweden, a simple protocol for registration of fatalities among abusers of alcohol, pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs, or other substances, has been used by the forensic pathologists since 2001. This routine was introduced to allow for an evaluation of the cause and manner of death, and patterns of abuse among different groups of abusers. We explored the data on drug abusers (i.e. abusers of illicit drugs) subjected to a forensic autopsy 2002-2003. The Swedish forensic pathologists examined 10,273 dead victims during the study period and 7% (743/10,273) of the cases were classified as drug abusers. Toxicological analyses were carried out in 99% (736/743) and illicit drugs were detected in 70% (514/736) of these. On average, 3.8 substances (legal or illegal) were found per case. The most common substances were ethanol and morphine, detected in 43 and 35% of the cases, respectively. When exploring the importance of the different substances for the cause of death, we found that the detection of some substances, such as fentanyl and morphine, strongly indicated a poisoning, whereas certain other substances, such as benzodiazepines more often were incidental findings. In total, 50% (372/743) died of poisoning, whereas only 22% (161/743) died of natural causes. Death was considered to be directly or indirectly due to drug abuse in 47% (346/743), whereas evidence of drug abuse was an incidental finding in 21% (153/743) or based on case history alone in 33% (244/743). We believe that this strategy to prospectively categorize deaths among drug addicts constitutes a simple means of standardizing the surveillance of the death toll among drug addicts that could allow for comparisons over time and between countries.

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