Columbia University Claims Drug Overdoses Will Hit 50,000 Per Year

By John Lavitt 01/27/15

It's going to get worse before it gets better.

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According to a Columbia University study, the drug overdose epidemic in the United States will peak at about 50,000 annual deaths in 2017. The study is the first to apply Farr's Law on the rise and fall of epidemics to an outbreak that is not from the strict perspective of epidemiologists infectious in origin.

At present, more than 40,000 people in the U.S. die every year by unintentional drug overdose. Incredibly, that number has ballooned tenfold since 1980. First author Salima Darakjy, a doctoral student at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, explained that, "To some extent, drug use is a social behavior and has the potential to spread like a contagious disease among individuals in a network.”

Published in the journal Injury Epidemiology, the study shows that the drug overdose epidemic may soon be ending. 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.

Researchers applied the same formula to the drug overdose epidemic that is plaguing the entire country. Using Farr's Law, they found 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, roughly the same rate seen before the start of the epidemic.

The Columbia researchers believe the rate of deaths from prescription painkillers, which account for two-thirds of all the deaths, has already slowed. Tighter rules on painkillers have led some users to switch to heroin, which is cheaper and more readily available. Still, the researchers noted that this substitution effect is unlikely to alter the course of the epidemic.

Like most epidemics, the drug overdoses will not stop of their own accord. Public health efforts must continue even as the epidemic wanes. Dr. Guohua Li, professor of Epidemiology and director of the Center for Injury Prevention at the Mailman School, clearly states that, "A decline in overdose deaths shouldn't be used as justification to pull back. That would be wrong. If there is no intervention then the epidemic will last much longer."

The study employed National Center for Health Statistics data and assumed continued public health resources would be used 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 study concludes, "it may imply that the intensified efforts in recent years, such as enhanced prescription drug monitoring, are working and should be continued."

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.