Changing dynamics of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States from 1979 through 2016

SCIENCE - In an effort to understand the epidemic dynamics and perhaps predict its future course, Pitt Public Health researchers analyzed records of nearly 600,000 overdose deaths. Dean DONALD BURKE, HPM's HAWRE JALAL, and colleagues concluded that the U.S. drug overdose epidemic has been inexorably tracking along an exponential growth curve since at least 1979. 

Hawre Jalal1, Jeanine M. Buchanich2, Mark S. Roberts1, Lauren C. Balmert2,4, Kun Zhang5, Donald S. Burke3,*

Analyzing the drug abuse epidemic

There is a developing drug epidemic in the United States. Jalal et al. analyzed nearly 600,000 unintentional drug overdoses over a 38-year period. Although the overall mortality rate closely followed an exponential growth curve, the pattern itself is a composite of several underlying subepidemics of different drugs. Geographic hotspots have developed over time, as well as drug-specific demographic differences.


The epidemic of substance use disorders and drug overdose deaths is a growing public health crisis in the United States. Every day, 174 people die from drug overdoses. Currently, opioids (including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its chemical analogs) are the leading cause of overdose deaths. The overdose mortality data can reveal the complex and evolving dynamics of drug use in the United States.

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1Department of Health Policy and Management, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh
2Department of Biostatistics, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh
3Department of Epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh
4Department of Preventive Medicine (Biostatistics), Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University
5Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
*Corresponding author


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