The largest ever seizure of fentanyl in the United States – 254 pounds of the white powder, enough to kill 1 in 3 Americans by overdose – was found under a shipment of cucumbers recently.
A policing approach alone is insufficient to take on the opioid crisis.
Those types of stories barely make the headlines any more, in part because illicit drugs are no longer just handsold by drug dealers; these sales have gone online. The neighborhood dealer faces the same evolving environment as other retailers and may soon go the way of Sears.
But opioids themselves are not going away. I could make an opioid purchase online in about 30 seconds and have it sent to my door, says Joe Smyser. The epidemiologist and president of The Public Good Projects isn't bragging, he's simply stating a fact about the opioid crisis that has struck the United States. The U.S Drug Enforcement Agency, social media companies, and some foreign governments have undertaken massive efforts to shut down sites selling illegal drugs, and they have gotten very good at it, shuttering most within a day of their opening.
But it's a Whac-A-Mole situation in which new ones pop up as quickly as older ones are closed; they are promoted through hashtags, social media networks, and ubiquitous email spam to lure visitors to a website or call a WhatsApp number to make a purchase. The online disruption by law enforcement has become simply another cost of doing business for drug sellers. Fentanyl, and similar analogues created to evade detection and the law, are at the center of it. Small amounts can be mixed with other "safer" opioids to get a high, and the growth of online sales have all contributed to the surge of opioid-related deaths: about 17,500 in 2006; 47,600 in 2017; and a projected 82,000 a year by 2025.
All of this has occurred even while authorities have been cracking down on the prescribing of opioids, and prescription-related deaths have declined. Clearly a policing approach alone is insufficient to take on the opioid crisis.
Building the Tools
The Public Good Projects (PGP), a nonprofit organization founded by concerned experts, was set up to better understand public health issues in this new online environment and better shape responses. The first step is to understand what people are hearing and the language they are using by monitoring social media and other forms of public communications. "We're collecting data from every publicly available media source that we can get our hands on. It's broadcast television data, it's radio, it's print newspapers and magazines. And then it's online data; it's online video, social media, blogs, websites," Smyser explains.
The purpose was to better understand the opioid crisis and find out if there were differences between affected rural and urban populations.
"Then our job is to create queries, create searches of all of that data so that we find what is the information that Americans are exposed to about a topic, and then what … Americans [are] sharing amongst themselves about that same topic."
He says it's the same thing business has been doing for years to monitor their "brand health" and be prepared for possible negative issues that might arise about their products and services. He believes PGP is the first group to use those tools for public health.
Looking At Opioids
PGP's work on opioids started with a contract from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) through the National Science Foundation. The purpose was simply to better understand the opioid crisis in the United States and in particular find out if there were differences between affected rural and urban populations. A team of data scientists, public health professionals, and cultural anthropologists needed several months to sort out and organize the algorithms from the sheer volume of data.
Drug use is particularly rich in slang, where a specific drug or way of using it can be referred to in multiple ways in different towns and social groups. Traditional media often uses clinical terms, Twitter shorthand, and all of that has to be structured and integrated "so that it isn't just spitting out data that is gobbledygook and of no use to anyone," says Smyser.
The data they gather is both cumulative and in real time, tabulated and visually represented in constantly morphing hashtag and word clouds where the color and size of the word indicates the source and volume of its use.
Popular hashtags on Twitter relating to the opioid crisis.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
The visual presentation of data helps to understand what different groups are saying and how they are saying it. For example, compare the hashtag and word clouds. Younger people are more likely to use the hashtags of Twitter, while older people are more likely to use older forms of media, and that is reflected in their concerns and language in those clouds.
Popular words relating to the opioid crisis gathered from older forms of media.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
A Ping map shows the origin of messages, while a Spidey map shows the network of how messages are being forwarded and shared among people. These sets of data can be overlaid with zip code, census, and socioeconomic data to provide an even deeper sense of who is saying what. And when integrated together, they provide clues to topics and language that might best engage people in each niche.
A Ping map showing the origin of messages around the opioid crisis.
(Credit: The Public Good Projects)
One thing that quickly became apparent to PGP in monitoring the media is that "over half of the information that the American public is exposed to about opioids is a very distant policy debate," says Smyser.
It is political pronouncements in DC, the legal system going after pharmaceutical companies that promoted prescription opioids for pain relief (and more), or mandatory prison terms for offenders. Relatively little is about treatment, the impact on families and communities, and what people can do themselves. That is particularly important in light of another key finding: residents of "Trump-land," the rural areas that supported the president and are being ravaged by opioids, talk about the problem and solutions very differently from urban areas.
"In rural communities there is usually a huge emphasis on self-reliance, and we take care of each other; that's why we enjoy living here. We are a neighborhood, we come together and we fix our own problems," according to Smyser.
In contrast, urban communities tend to be more transient, less likely to live in multigenerational households and neighborhoods, and look to formal institutions rather than themselves for solutions. "The message that we're sending people is one where there is really no role whatsoever for self-efficacy...we're giving them nothing to do" to help solve the problem themselves, says Smyser. "In fact, I could argue it is reducing self-efficacy."
Residents of "Trump-land," the rural areas that supported the president and are being ravaged by opioids, talk about the problem and solutions very differently from urban areas.
The opioid crisis is complex and improving the situation will be too. Smyser believes a top-down policing approach alone will not work; it is better to provide front-line public health officers at the state and local level with more and current intelligence so they can respond in their communities.
"I think that would be enormously impactful. But right now, we just don't have that service." SAMHSA declined multiple requests to discuss this project paid for with federal money. A spokesman concluded with: "That project occurred under the previous administration, and we did not have a direct relationship with PGP. As a result, I am unable to comment on the project."
The Milken Institute Center for Public Health, a think tank that is working to find solutions to the opioid epidemic, had an upbeat response. Director Sabrina Spitaletta said, "PGP's work to provide real-time data that monitors topics of high concern in public health has been very helpful to many of the front-line organizations working to combat this crisis."
No human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when he’s 105?
At the Louisiana Senior Games in November 2021, 105-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge became the oldest woman to run 100 meters in an official competition, qualifying her for this year's National Senior Games. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was the only competitor in the race for people 105 and older. In this Leaps.org video, I interview Hawkins about her lifestyle habits over the decades. Then I ask Steven Austad, a pioneer in studying the mechanisms of aging, for his scientific insights into how those aspiring to become super-agers might follow in Hawkins' remarkable footsteps.
Following the Footsteps of a 105-Year-Old SprinterNo human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when ...
A new virus has emerged and stoked fears of another pandemic: monkeypox. Since May 2022, it has been detected in 29 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico among international travelers and their close contacts. On a worldwide scale, as of June 30, there have been 5,323 cases in 52 countries.
The good news: An existing vaccine can go a long way toward preventing a catastrophic outbreak. Because monkeypox is a close relative of smallpox, the same vaccine can be used—and it is about 85 percent effective against the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Also on the plus side, monkeypox is less contagious with milder illness than smallpox and, compared to COVID-19, produces more telltale signs. Scientists think that a “ring” vaccination strategy can be used when these signs appear to help with squelching this alarming outbreak.
How it’s transmitted
Monkeypox spreads between people primarily through direct contact with infectious sores, scabs, or bodily fluids. People also can catch it through respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of June 30, there have been 396 documented monkeypox cases in the U.S., and the CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to mobilize additional personnel and resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is aiming to boost testing capacity and accessibility. No Americans have died from monkeypox during this outbreak but, during the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 to date), Africa has documented 12,141 cases and 363 deaths from monkeypox.
Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
A person infected with monkeypox typically has symptoms—for instance, fever and chills—in a contagious state, so knowing when to avoid close contact with others makes it easier to curtail than COVID-19.
Advantages of ring vaccination
For this reason, it’s feasible to vaccinate a “ring” of people around the infected individual rather than inoculating large swaths of the population. Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
With many infections, “it normally would make sense to everyone to vaccinate more widely,” says Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a professor and director of the Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. However, “in this case, ring vaccination may be sufficient to contain the outbreak and also minimize the rare, but potentially serious side effects of the smallpox/monkeypox vaccine.”
There are two licensed smallpox vaccines in the United States: ACAM2000 (live Vaccina virus) and JYNNEOS (live virus non-replicating). The ACAM 2000, Van Voorhis says, is the old smallpox vaccine that, in rare instances, could spread diffusely within the body and cause heart problems, as well as severe rash in people with eczema or serious infection in immunocompromised patients.
To prevent organ damage, the current recommendation would be to use the JYNNEOS vaccine, says Phyllis Kanki, a professor of health sciences in the division of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, according to a report on the CDC’s website, people with immunocompromising conditions could have a higher risk of getting a severe case of monkeypox, despite being vaccinated, and “might be less likely to mount an effective response after any vaccination, including after JYNNEOS.”
In the late 1960s, the ring vaccination strategy became part of the WHO’s mission to globally eradicate smallpox, with the last known natural case described in Somalia in 1977. Ring vaccination can also refer to how a clinical trial is designed, as was the case in 2015, when this approach was used for researching the benefits of an investigational Ebola vaccine in Guinea, Kanki says.
“Since Monkeypox spreads by close contact and we have an effective vaccine, vaccinating high-risk individuals and their contacts may be a good strategy to limit transmission,” she says, adding that privacy is an important ethical principle that comes into play, as people with monkeypox would need to disclose their close contacts so that they could benefit from ring vaccination.
Rapid identification of cases and contacts—along with their cooperation—is essential for ring vaccination to be effective. Although mass vaccination also may work, the risk of infection to most of the population remains low while supply of the JYNNEOS vaccine is limited, says Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of medicine in the Infectious Disease Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Other strategies for preventing transmission
Ideally, the vaccine should be administered within four days of an exposure, but it’s recommended for up to 14 days. The WHO also advocates more widespread vaccination campaigns in the population segment with the most cases so far: men who engage in sex with other men.
The virus appears to be spreading in sexual networks, which differs from what was seen in previously reported outbreaks of monkeypox (outside of Africa), where risk was associated with travel to central or west Africa or various types of contact with individuals or animals from those locales. There is no evidence of transmission by food, but contaminated articles in the environment such as bedding are potential sources of the virus, Deresinski says.
Severe cases of monkeypox can occur, but “transmission of the virus requires close contact,” he says. “There is no evidence of aerosol transmission, as occurs with SARS-CoV-2, although it must be remembered that the smallpox virus, a close relative of monkeypox, was transmitted by aerosol.”
Deresinski points to the fact that in 2003, monkeypox was introduced into the U.S. through imports from Ghana of infected small mammals, such as Gambian giant rats, as pets. They infected prairie dogs, which also were sold as pets and, ultimately, this resulted in 37 confirmed transmissions to humans and 10 probable cases. A CDC investigation identified no cases of human-to-human transmission. Then, in 2021, a traveler flew from Nigeria to Dallas through Atlanta, developing skin lesions several days after arrival. Another CDC investigation yielded 223 contacts, although 85 percent were deemed to be at only minimal risk and the remainder at intermediate risk. No new cases were identified.
How much should we be worried
But how serious of a threat is monkeypox this time around? “Right now, the risk to the general public is very low,” says Scott Roberts, an assistant professor and associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine. “Monkeypox is spread through direct contact with infected skin lesions or through close contact for a prolonged period of time with an infected person. It is much less transmissible than COVID-19.”
The monkeypox incubation period—the time from infection until the onset of symptoms—is typically seven to 14 days but can range from five to 21 days, compared with only three days for the Omicron variant of COVID-19. With such a long incubation, there is a larger window to conduct contact tracing and vaccinate people before symptoms appear, which can prevent infection or lessen the severity.
But symptoms may present atypically or recognition may be delayed. “Ring vaccination works best with 100 percent adherence, and in the absence of a mandate, this is not achievable,” Roberts says.
At the outset of infection, symptoms include fever, chills, and fatigue. Several days later, a rash becomes noticeable, usually beginning on the face and spreading to other parts of the body, he says. The rash starts as flat lesions that raise and develop fluid, similar to manifestations of chickenpox. Once the rash scabs and falls off, a person is no longer contagious.
“It's an uncomfortable infection,” says Van Voorhis, the University of Washington School of Medicine professor. There may be swollen lymph nodes. Sores and rash are often limited to the genitals and areas around the mouth or rectum, suggesting intimate contact as the source of spread.
Symptoms of monkeypox usually last from two to four weeks. The WHO estimated that fatalities range from 3 to 6 percent. Although it’s believed to infect various animal species, including rodents and monkeys in west and central Africa, “the animal reservoir for the virus is unknown,” says Kanki, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor.
Too often, viruses originate in parts of the world that are too poor to grapple with them and may lack the resources to invest in vaccines and treatments. “This disease is endemic in central and west Africa, and it has basically been ignored until it jumped to the north and infected Europeans, Americans, and Canadians,” Van Voorhis says. “We have to do a better job in health care and prevention all over the world. This is the kind of thing that comes back to bite us.”