By Kate Vidinsky


A staggering 64,000 people in the United States died in 2016 from drug overdoses, marking a 22 percent rise from the previous year of a cause of death that now annually exceeds those caused by motor vehicle accidents and gun violence. The primary driver of the drug overdose crisis is the ongoing opioid epidemic, which claims the lives of more than 115 people in the country every day, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The level of death and despair in certain parts of the country is unfathomable,” said UC San Francisco’s Daniel Ciccarone, MD, MPH.  One of the major hurdles to curbing the epidemic is putting exact figures on the number of overdoses, how many overdoses lead to death, and the type of opioids being used. Nationwide, several health agencies are working to collect more information about overdoses and deaths, including one that sends researchers directly into the communities stricken by opioid abuse. This in-the-field research is part of the Heroin in Transition study, led by Ciccarone. The five-year study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is gathering statistical data on opioid use patterns in order to gain a more accurate understanding of the changes in the heroin supply and resulting harms. But just as importantly, the study also sends researchers, including Ciccarone, into the field to get to know and truly understand the behavior of opioid users.