I’m warning you up front. There’s heartbreak in this issue. In two stories, Science News writers investigate new facets of the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 91 Americans die on average each day from opioid overdoses, quadruple the deaths from opioid overdoses in 1999. Today, nearly half of those deaths involve prescription painkillers. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times,” Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told the Associated Press late last year.
In the first story, “For babies exposed to opioids in the womb, parents may be the best medicine,” Meghan Rosen writes about the youngest victims of the epidemic — babies born to a mother who uses opioids who then go through withdrawal themselves. In rural areas, nearly 8 in 1,000 babies suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome, which can include trembling, excessive crying and intestinal troubles. Pediatrician Nicole Villapiano describes these babies as “miserable.” Then in "The opioid epidemic spurs a search for new, safer painkillers", Laurel Hamers investigates efforts to find new pain-killing drugs. Opioids bring scary side effects and the risk of addiction, but for some people, they are still the best option to alleviate excruciating pain.
The opioid epidemic is among those unfortunate (and not-so-rare) happenings that offer science journalists the opportunity to tackle a topic that matters greatly to people’s lives. And it’s one of those problems that demand attention from different angles. Science News has long been committed to finding the science stories (emphasis on plural) behind the problems facing our families, communities and world. In the 1940s and ’50s, there was the polio epidemic. In the ’80s, there was AIDS. This isn’t the first time Science News has covered the opioid epidemic, either: Last July, for example, Susan Gaidos reported on research into vaccines to fend off opioid addiction (SN: 7/9/16, p. 22).
Diseases appear commonly on the list of “unfortunate opportunities” because their effects are literally visceral. But there are plenty of other topics that fall into this category: Science News has covered worries about nuclear war, the science behind terrorism, poverty, pollution and of course climate change, likely to get ever more visceral as time passes. By digging into research questions in specific subfields — the network science of terrorism or the psychology of poverty, for example — Science News can cover sides of stories that other outlets aren’t telling.
These articles don’t always make for uplifting copy. They can be more troubling to read than stories about mucus houses, whale origins or oxygen on comets. But reporting on scientific advances often does offer hope. Rosen’s report on doctors reevaluating therapies for opioid-exposed babies notes that the simple strategy of time with mom and dad might improve treatment. And Hamers devotes much of her story to promising ways to tweak opioids to maintain their pain-killing power without all the negative effects.
If nothing else, there’s promise in the knowledge that people are seeking solutions. There are a lot of scientists out there who see the problems of the world and are concerned, curious and creative enough to find ways to help.