The use of drugs can range from taking aspirin for a headache to using illegal drugs like cocaine or heroin. When used as directed, many drugs are helpful. But some drugs are strong enough to cause dependence. When people are addicted to a drug, they cannot stop taking it, even if they want to. Their bodies and minds are unable to function normally without the drug.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (Pitt Public Health) have been looking at the abuse of one drug in particular—an opioid called heroin. (An opioid is a drug that relieves pain.) The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines heroin as “an illegal, highly addictive drug processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance extracted from the seed pod of certain varieties of poppy plants.” Heroin comes in different forms that can be snorted, smoked or injected.
Pitt Public Health researchers have long been looking at the effects of drug abuse on the general population. But when they started using the school’s large public health data systems—one of which tracks every death in the United States for the past 50 years by cause and location—researchers noticed a surprising trend, according to Donald S. Burke, MD, dean of Pitt Public Health, associate vice chancellor for global health, UPMC Jonas Salk Professor of Global Health and director of the Center for Vaccine Research at Pitt.