Efforts to fight the epidemic must focus on more than just the availability of certain drugs, the researchers say.
The current opioid overdose crisis is actually part of a 40-year trend that is still headed upward, and current efforts to fight it may not be anywhere near enough, researchers said Thursday.
A new analysis of drug overdose deaths shows that while the drug of choice may change, and the kinds of people affected may change, the trend is clear: The number of Americans dying of drug overdoses has gone up exponentially for decades.
It started before the availability of synthetic opioids, and may have only a little to do with the prescribing habits of doctors or the pushy habits of drugmakers, the team at the University of Pittsburgh found.
“The opioid crisis may be part of a larger, longer-term process,” the team wrote in their report, published in the journal Science.
“The epidemic of drug overdoses in the United States has been inexorably tracking along an exponential growth curve since at least 1979, well before the surge in opioid prescribing in the mid-1990s.”
The Health and Human Services Department released $1 billion this week to various agencies to use in fighting the epidemic, with funds earmarked for medications to help people stop using opioids and behavioral programs to help prevent relapses.
HHS said the number of opioid prescriptions has already dropped by 21 percent since January 2017.
But if the conclusions of the Pitt team are right, the epidemic will continue to worsen.
“If we try to address the opioid epidemic, we can probably make a difference for a while,” Dr. Donald Burke, dean of Pitt’s school of public health, told NBC News.
But there are several underlying factors in the ongoing epidemic, many of which have nothing to do with the drugs that are available, said Burke, who led the study team.
Burke predicts that new drugs and new routes of taking them will hit the streets, keeping the epidemic going. These include societal and cultural factors.
“This is a reason that U.S. society needs to pay attention to the loss of the sense of purpose, the widening economic disparities, the loss of community,” said Burke.
Nearly 48,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said Thursday that he wants to raise awareness of opioid addiction as a brain disease…