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Opioid overdoses have become a national crisis, killing more than 72,000 Americans in 2017 alone, up from 33,000 in 2015. Response to the crisis is hampered by a lack of accurate and timely data but one study may have a solution.

Researchers have found that Google searchers may be an accurate source of data to predict clusters of overdoses in cities and neighborhoods. This information may help interventions in communities that can save lives.

The study began with the hypothesis that some people who search online for information on opioids like heroin are at risk of overdosing in the near future. Researchers at the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology created statistical models to predict overdoses based on keyword searches related to opioids, total ER visits, and income inequality in the region.

The team found regional differences in how people searched for opioid information. Increased searches of specific keywords was associated with a higher number of overdoses in the area. For example, terms like “China white” and “methadone” were the strongest predictors for opioid-related ER visits. The researchers did point out some limitations with the model, such as an inability to determine context. The keyword “brown sugar” was very popular for opioid searches in many cities but the model could not differentiate the term from the food ingredient.

To develop the model, the team used search data for 12 different illicit and prescription opioids between 2005 and 2011 in nine metropolitan areas. This information was compared with records of heroin-related emergency room visits during the same time frame.

Opioid refers to many drugs made to replicate the pain-stopping effects of opium. Opioids can include legal prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine as well as illicit drugs like heroin and illegally sourced fentanyl. Opioids work by binding to brain receptors to disrupt pain signals and activating the reward centers of the brain by prompting the release of dopamine.

Every day, over 1,000 people are treated in an ER for misuse of prescription opioids and 11 die from an opioid overdose. It’s estimated that more than 11 million people abuse prescription opioids in any given year.

A drug called naloxone is capable of reversing or stopping the effects of opioids and it’s used to treat opioid overdoses. Naloxone can save someone who is overdosing and very quickly restore normal breathing. This safe medication is widely used by first responders but many states have also set up naloxone distribution programs for opioid users, friends, and family members.

If more timely opioid data is available, this new study may be used to help first responders and local governments develop effective programs to target opioid users and distribute naloxone as effectively as possible.