This first part of a two-part episode in the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ’s) Just Science podcast series is an interview with Dr. Jon Zibbell, a Senior Public Health Analyst from RTI International, who discusses the waves of the opioid epidemic and their impact on communities.
Dr. Zibbell conducts behavioral and community-based epidemiological research on risk factors and health outcomes linked with the opioid epidemic and injection drug use. He is a medical anthropologist with two decades of field experience with injection drug use, opioid-use disorder, drug overdose, and injection-related infectious disease. Background information for the interview notes that medical anthropology provides a distinctive perspective of the current increase in illicit substance abuse. Medical anthropologists, such as Dr. Zibbell are focusing on ways to predict trends in illicit substance use instead of identifying them after overdose deaths occur. The interview focuses on the waves of the opioid epidemic, the impact the waves have on communities, and how data collection and analysis can assist prevention measures. As discussed in the interview, the data used to determine the waves of drug use come mainly from the toxicological analyses of decedents in determining cause of death. Based on such data, Dr, Zibbell identifies four waves defined by which drugs are causing most drug-related deaths in a chronological period. The four waves defined by the drugs causing most deaths in a period are 1) prescription opioids, 2) heroin, 3) fentanyl, and 4) fentanyl and cocaine (prominent death-causing drugs) with the presence of a less toxic methamphetamine stimulant.