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Drug overdose epidemic to recede soon, experts say

Date:
January 6, 2015
Source:
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health
Summary:
The drug overdose epidemic will peak at about 50,000 annual deaths in 2017 before declining to a non-epidemic state of approximately 6,000 deaths in the year 2035 -- at roughly the same rate seen before the start of the epidemic, researchers predict.
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A study by researchers at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health is the first to apply Farr's Law on the rise and fall of epidemics to an outbreak that isn't, strictly speaking, infectious in origin: drug overdoses.

At present, more than 40,000 Americans die every year by unintentional drug overdose--a number that has ballooned tenfold since 1980.

In a study of smallpox in the mid-1800s, pioneering British epidemiologist William Farr discovered that the rate and duration of the epidemic's rise was mirrored in its decline. Using Farr's Law, the Mailman School researchers project that the drug overdose epidemic will peak at about 50,000 annual deaths in 2017 before declining to a non-epidemic state of approximately 6,000 deaths in the year 2035--at roughly the same rate seen before the start of the epidemic. Results appear online in the journal Injury Epidemiology.

Guohua Li, MD, DrPH, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Injury Prevention at the Mailman School, and colleagues posit that Farr's Law can be extended to outbreaks that don't involve an infectious agent like a virus or bacteria. In recent years, they write, scientists have developed a theory of "social contagion" that says behavioral disorders and conditions like obesity spread through social networks much like infectious outbreaks.

"To some extent, drug use is a social behavior and has the potential to spread like a contagious disease among individuals in a network," explains Salima Darakjy, a doctoral student in Epidemiology and the study's first author.

The researchers believe the overdose rate has already slowed, driven by a decline in deaths from prescription painkillers, which account for two-thirds of all the deaths. Tighter rules on painkillers have led some users to switch to heroin, which is cheaper and more readily available. But while this substitution effect is concerning, Dr. Li says it's unlikely to alter the course of the epidemic.

On the other hand, the epidemic of drug overdoses--like most epidemics--won't end by itself. Public health efforts must continue even as the epidemic wanes. "A decline in overdose deaths shouldn't be used as justification to pull back," Dr. Li stresses. "That would be wrong. If there is no intervention then the epidemic will last much longer."

The researchers' projections, which use National Center for Health Statistics data, assume continued public health resources to prevent overdoses. Congress has committed $20 million in 2015, a slight increase over 2014.

"If the epidemic of drug overdoses is indeed waning," the researchers conclude, "it may imply that the intensified efforts in recent years, such as enhanced prescription drug monitoring, are working and should be continued."


Story Source:

Materials provided by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Salima Darakjy, Joanne E Brady, Charles J DiMaggio, Guohua Li. Applying Farr%u2019s Law to project the drug overdose mortality epidemic in the United States. Injury Epidemiology, 2014; 1 (1): 31 DOI: 10.1186/s40621-014-0031-2

Cite This Page:

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Drug overdose epidemic to recede soon, experts say." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 January 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106161940.htm>.
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. (2015, January 6). Drug overdose epidemic to recede soon, experts say. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106161940.htm
Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "Drug overdose epidemic to recede soon, experts say." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150106161940.htm (accessed May 26, 2017).

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