Tracking Tool Harnesses Social Media to Monitor Illicit Drug Use

Eileen Oldfield, Associate Editor
Published Online: Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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A National Institutes of Health–funded project aims to identify emerging drug trends to aid in public health response efforts.  

An early warning system that scans social media and web platforms to identify outbreaks and pinpoint new illicit drug trends is being developed by the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research (CESAR). The platform, called the National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS), would work in conjunction with conventional national and local resources.
The project begins in August 2014, and will take 5 years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, will fund its development. According to NIDA, the system aims to prevent emerging drug problems, such as increased use of designer synthetic drugs, from escalating or spreading.
“NDEWS will generate critically needed information about new drug trends in specific locations around the country so rapid, informed, and effective public health responses can be developed precisely where needed,” Dr. Nora D. Volkow, NIDA director, said in a press release.
Incorporating social media will compensate for shortcomings in the existing platforms, which may not monitor emerging drugs, may not provide information about drug use at the community level, or may require more than a year to collect and report information. In addition, information about designer synthetic drugs is often rapidly spread through social media or the Internet.
“NDEWS promises to provide the country with critically needed real-time information about changing drug use patterns in communities across the country,” Dr. Eric Wish, lead investigator at CESAR, said in a press release.
The Community Epidemiology Working Group conducts local-level drug use surveillance now by relying on drug addiction experts who analyze data and create semiannual reports on major metropolitan areas and certain states. These sources will still be used with the new system; however, the new system aims to detect emerging drug trends from national and local data sources, aid in dispatching rapid response teams to areas with rapid increases in emerging drugs, and quickly disseminate information to the public.

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