Is America’s opioid epidemic actually part of a 40-year trend?
Most would consider the opioid epidemic current affecting America to be a relatively new phenomenon driven by the rise of synthetic opioids and increasing prescription rates. However, a group of experts is now arguing the opioid crisis in America is actually part of a 40-year trend that shows no signs of stopping.
Based on an analysis of overdose death rates, the team found that while specific drug choices and affected communities may have shifted, the overall rate of Americans dying from drug overdoses has consistently grown exponentially for at least the past four decades.
“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,” study author Hawre Jalal, MD, Ph.D, also of the University of Pittsburgh, told MedPage Today. “When we plot the annual sum of all drug overdoses, we get a remarkably smooth, inexorable exponential curve.”
Notably, the report published in the journal Science says the overdose rates for specific drugs is very difficult to predict. While some drugs such as cocaine have shown significant decreases and increases sporadically through the study period, others like opioids have consistently climbed throughout the entire period.
“Prescription opioids have been on a fairly steady, steep climb,” Jalal noted. “Heroin deaths shot up in 2010, followed in 2013 by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Methamphetamine appears to be on the verge of its own dramatic climb.”
Despite this, the overall rate of drug overdose deaths has consistently risen with no indication of slowing down.
For their study, the team led by Burke examined the rates of accidental drug deaths recorded in the U.S. National Vital Statistics System since 1979, when the system first began recording drug overdoses as their own category.
When they plotted out the rates, the team was shocked to find a nearly perfect upward curve from the very start.
“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,” Burke said in a statement. “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.
“This remarkably smooth, long-term epidemic growth pattern really caught our attention,” he added. “If we can figure it out, we should be able to bend that curve downward.”