Death rates from drug overdoses in the U.S. have been on an exponential growth curve that began at least 15 years before the mid-1990s surge in opioid prescribing, suggesting that overdose death rates may continue along this same historical growth trajectory for years to come, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health analysis published today in Science.
The type of drug and the demographics of those who die from overdoses has fluctuated over the years. When the use of one drug waned, a new drug filled in, attracting new populations from different geographic regions at faster rates. These findings suggest that, to be successful, prevention efforts must extend beyond control of specific drugs to address deeper factors driving the epidemic.
“The current epidemic of overdose deaths due to prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl appears to be the most recent manifestation of a more fundamental, longer-term process,” said senior author Donald S. Burke, M.D., Pitt Public Health dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health. “Understanding the forces holding these multiple individual drug epidemics together in a tight upward exponential trajectory will be important in revealing the root causes of the epidemic, and this understanding could be crucial to prevention and intervention strategies.”