Researchers Predicted That The Opioid Epidemic Will Peak in 2017: Could They Be Right?

By Keri Blakinger 01/09/17

In 2014, a group of researchers published theories on drug overdose rates that suggest there may be hope on the horizon.

Silhouette of a young man in 2017.

It was less than an hour into 2017 when one Maryland county saw its first overdose—one of the first opioid fatalities of the new year. Harford County recorded at least 54 heroin overdoses in 2016, nearly twice as many as in 2015. This year doesn’t seem like it’s off to a good start either. Forty-five minutes into 2017, the county saw its first heroin overdose death, and a second before last Tuesday. 

“We're extremely disappointed with our number in 2016, specifically the number of fatal overdoses nearly doubling," Capt. Lee Dunbar of the Harford County Sheriff's Office told the Baltimore Sun. "Our goal for 2017 is to get those numbers going in the opposite direction."

But if the team of Columbia researchers who published their theories on drug overdose rates in a 2014 issue of Injury Epidemiology is right, there could be hope on the horizon. 

The researchers based their predictions on an epidemics model developed in the mid-19th century by William Farr, whose groundbreaking epidemiology work looked at smallpox outbreaks to generate a so-called law of epidemics. Since then, Farr’s Law has been applied to cattle plagues, smallpox outbreaks and the AIDS epidemic. 

When researchers applied the model to opioid overdoses, they used data stretching back to 1980 to predict that 2016 and 2017 would reach a high water mark at 16.1 deaths per 100,000 population. By 2034, the researchers posit, deaths should be down to early 1980s rates of fewer than 3 per 100,000.

Of course, the authors caution that it’s not clear whether Farr’s Law holds true for non-infectious epidemics like opioid overdoses. “Although the method we applied originated from studies of infectious diseases, it is unknown whether Farr’s Law applies to epidemics of a non-infectious origin,” the authors write. “It is plausible that a non-communicable disease, such as drug overdose, can follow infectious patterns.” 

In the past, other researchers have posited theories of social contagion for obesity and some behavioral disorders. Basically, a set of social mechanisms may mimic infectious disease patterns in spreading certain behaviors through the population until they hit a natural threshold or are limited by intervention efforts. In this case, those efforts could include increasing access to the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, or the rising interest in prescription painkiller tracking. 

“Mortality data over the next two decades will ultimately test the accuracy of our projections,” the researchers conclude. “If the drug overdose epidemic is indeed waning, 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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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.