Do development indicators underlie global variation in the number of young people injecting drugs?

Dr Lindsey Hines, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in The Centre for Academic Mental Health & the Integrative Epidemiology Unit, University of Bristol

Dr Adam Trickey, Senior Research Associate in Population Health Sciences, University of Bristol

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Injecting drug use is a global issue: around the world an estimated 15.6 million people inject psychoactive drugs. People who inject drugs tend to begin doing so in adolescence, and countries that have larger numbers of adolescents who inject drugs may be at risk of emerging epidemics of blood borne viruses unless they take urgent action. We mapped the global differences in the proportion of adolescents who inject drugs, but found that we may be missing the vital data we need to protect the lives of vulnerable young people. If we want to prevent HIV, hepatitis C, and overdose from sweeping through a new generation of adolescents we urgently need many countries to scale up harm reduction interventions, and to collect accurate which can inform public health and policy.

People who inject drugs are engaging in a behaviour that can expose them to multiple health risks such as addiction, blood-borne viruses, and overdose, and are often stigmatised. New generations of young people are still starting to inject drugs, and young people who inject drugs are often part of other vulnerable groups.

Much of the research into the causes of injecting drug use focuses on individual factors, but we wanted to explore the effect of global development on youth injecting. A recent systematic review showed wide country-level variation in the number of young people who comprise the population of people who inject drugs. By considering variation in countries, we hoped to be able to inform prevention and intervention efforts.

It’s important to note that effective interventions can reduce the harms of injecting drug use. Harm reduction programmes provide clean needles and syringes to reduce transmission of blood borne viruses. Opiate substitution therapy seeks to tackle the physical dependence on opiates that maintains injecting behaviour and has been shown to improve health outcomes.

What we did

Through a global systematic review and meta-analysis we aimed to find data on injecting drug use in published studies, public health and policy documents from every country. We used these data to estimate the global percentage of people who inject drugs that are aged 15-25 years old, and also estimated this for each region and country. We wanted to understand what might underlie variation in the number of young people in populations of people who inject drugs, and so we used data from the World Bank to identify markers of a country’s wealth, equality, and development.

What we found

Our study estimated that, globally, around a quarter of people who inject drugs are adolescents and young adults. Applied to the global population, we can estimate approximately 3·9 million young people inject drugs. As a global average, people start injecting drugs at 23 years old.

Estimated percentage of young people amongst those who inject drugs in each country

We found huge variation in the percentage of young people in each country’s population of people who inject drugs. Regionally, Eastern Europe had the highest proportion of young people amongst their populations who inject drugs, and the Middle Eastern and North African region had the lowest. In both Russia and the Philippines, over 50% of the people who inject drugs were aged 25 or under, and the average age of the populations of people who inject drugs was amongst the lowest observed.

Average age of the population of people who inject drugs in each country

In relation to global development indicators, people who inject drugs were younger in countries with lower wealth (indicated through Gross Domestic Product per capita) had been injecting drugs for a shorter time period. In rapidly urbanising countries (indicated through urbanisation growth rate) people were likely to start injecting drugs at later ages than people in countries with a slower current rate of urbanisation. We didn’t find any relationships between the age of people who inject drugs and a country’s youth unemployment, economic equality, or level provision of opiate substitution therapy.

However, many countries were missing data on injecting age and behaviours, or injecting drug use in general, which could affect these results.

What this means

1. The epidemic of injecting drug use is being maintained over time.

A large percentage of people who inject drugs are adolescents, meaning that a new generation are being exposed to the risks of injecting – and we found that this risk was especially high in less wealthy countries.

2. We need to scale up access to harm reduction interventions

There are highly punitive policies towards drug use in the countries with the largest numbers of young people in their populations of people who inject drugs. Since 2016, thousands of people who use drugs in the Philippines have died at the hands of the police. In contrast, Portugal has adopted a public health approach to drug use and addiction for decades, taking the radical step of taking people caught with drugs or personal use into addiction services rather than prisons. The rate of drug-related deaths and HIV infections in Portugal has since plummeted, as has the overall rate of drug use amongst young people: our data show that Portugal has a high average age for its population of people who inject drugs. If we do not want HIV, hepatitis C, and drug overdoses to sweep through a new generation of adolescents, we urgently need to see more countries adopting the approach pioneered by Portugal, and scaling up access to harm reduction interventions to the levels recommended by the WHO.

3. We need to think about population health, and especially mental health, alongside urban development.

Global development appears to be linked to injecting drug use, and the results suggest that countries with higher urbanisation growth are seeing new, older populations beginning to inject drugs. It may be that changes in environment are providing opportunities for injecting drug use that people hadn’t previously had. It’s estimated that almost 70% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050, with most of this growth driven by low and middle-income countries.

4. We need to collect accurate data

Despite the health risks of injecting drug use, and the urgent need to reduce risks for new generations, our study has revealed a paucity of data monitoring this behaviour. Most concerning, we know the least about youth injecting drug use in low- and middle-income countries: areas likely to have the highest numbers of young people in their populations of people who inject drugs. Due to the stigma and the illicit nature of injecting drug use it is often under-studied, but by failing to collect accurate data to inform public health and policy we are risking the lives of vulnerable young people.

Contact the researchers

Lindsey.hines@bristol.ac.uk

Lindsey is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

stopWatch – a smartwatch system that could help people quit smoking

Dr Andy Skinner and Chris Stone

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October sees the return of Stoptober, a Public Health England initiative to encourage smokers to quit. Campaigns like this and many others have been effective in reducing smoking in the UK over a number of decades. However, on average, about 15% of the UK’s population still smoke, and this costs the NHS more than £2.5bn each year.

To help address this, the NHS Long Term Plan has identified a range of measures to encourage healthier behaviours, including the need to speed up the introduction of innovative new health interventions based on digital technologies.

Here in the MRC IEU we’ve been working on a new wearable system that could help people stop smoking; stopWatch is a smartwatch-based system that automatically detects cigarette smoking. Because the system can detect when someone is smoking a cigarette, it can trigger the delivery of interventions to help that person quit smoking at precisely the time the interventions will be most effective.

Hand and wrist wearing stopWatch and holding a cigarette
The stopWatch could help people to stop smoking

What is stopWatch, and how does it work?

stopWatch is an application that runs on a commercially available Android smartwatch. Smartwatches now come equipped with motion sensors, just like the ones in smartphones that measure step counts and activity levels. As smartwatches are attached to the wrist, the motion sensors in a smartwatch can tell us how a person’s hand is moving. stopWatch takes data from the smartwatch’s motion sensors and applies machine learning methods to look for the particular pattern of hand movements that are unique to smoking a cigarette.

How can we use stopWatch to help people quit smoking?

It’s estimated about a third of UK smokers try to stop each year, but only a fifth of those that try manage to succeed. For most smokers an attempt to stop smoking ends with a lapse (having just one cigarette), that can quickly lead to a full relapse to smoking. As stopWatch can detect the exact moment a smoker lapses and has a cigarette, it can trigger the precise delivery of an intervention aimed specifically at helping prevent the lapse turning into a full relapse back to smoking.

Will the intervention work?

A recent article highlighted the potential for using mobile and wearable technologies, like stopWatch, to deliver these kinds of ‘just-in-time’ interventions for smoking. To develop our smoking relapse intervention we will be using the person-based approach, which has an excellent track record of delivering effective health behaviour change interventions. We will also be engaging the highly interdisciplinary cohort of PhD students in the new EPSRC Center for Doctoral Training in Digital Health and care, which brings together students with backgrounds in health, computer science, design and engineering.

However, that same article also pointed out that these types of intervention are still new, and that there has been little formal evaluation of them so far. So we don’t yet know how effective these will be, and it’s important interventions of this kind are subject to a thorough evaluation.

We will be working closely with colleagues in NIHR’s Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) West and Bristol Biomedical Research Centre who have expertise in developing, and importantly, evaluating interventions. We will also be working with the CRUK-funded Integrative Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol, collaborating with researchers who have detailed knowledge of developing interventions for specific patient groups.

The StopWatch display
On average, stopWatch detected 71% of cigarettes smoked and of the events stopWatch thought were cigarette smoking, 86% were actually cigarette smoking.

How good is stopWatch at detecting cigarette smoking?

In any system designed to recognise behaviours there is a trade-off between performance and cost/complexity. Other systems that use wearables to detect smoking are available, but these require the wearable be paired with a smartphone and need a data connection to a cloud-based platform in order to work properly. stopWatch is different in that it runs entirely on a smartwatch. It doesn’t need to be paired with a smartphone, and doesn’t need a data connection. This makes it cheaper and simpler than the other systems, but this also means its performance isn’t quite as good.

We recently validated the performance of stopWatch by asking thirteen participants to use stopWatch for a day as they went about their normal lives. On average, stopWatch detected 71% of cigarettes smoked (the system’s sensitivity), and of the events stopWatch thought were cigarette smoking, 86% were actually cigarette smoking (its specificity). This compares with a sensitivity of 82% and specificity of 97% for the systems that require smartphones and data networks.

When will stopWatch and the smoking relapse intervention be available and what will they cost?

The stopWatch system itself is available for research purposes to academic partners now, free of charge. We’re open to discussions with potential commercial partners – please get in touch if you’d like to discuss this (contact details below).

We aim to begin work on the smoking relapse intervention based on stopWatch next year, and we expect development and evaluation to take between 18 and 24 months. The cost of the intervention has yet to be determined. That will depend on many factors, including the partnerships we form to take the intervention forward.

What’s next?

We’re currently putting stopWatch through its paces in some tough testing in occupational settings. This will stress the system so that we can identify any weaknesses, find out to how to improve the system, and develop recommendations for optimising the use of stopWatch in future studies and interventions.

We’re also developing a new smartwatch-based system for the low burden collection of self-report data called ‘dataWatch’. This is currently undergoing feasibility testing in the Children of the 90s study.

Contact the researchers

Dr Andy Skinner Andy.Skinner@bristol.ac.uk 

Can lifestyle changes prevent prostate cancer or delay the need for treatment?

This men’s health week, National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre and Integrative Cancer Epidemiology Programme PhD student Meda Sandu outlines findings from research on how we can best prevent and treat prostate cancer.

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Prostate cancer (PCA) is the second most common cancer in the adult population in the UK, with over 47, 000 new cases being diagnosed each year.  Over 400, 000 people assigned male at birth live with or after a diagnosis of PCA. Localised PCA is cancer that is confined in the prostate gland and has not spread to other organs. Localised PCA often grows slowly, may not give any symptoms and/or require treatment. However, occasionally this type of cancer is aggressive in nature, can spread fast and will require treatment. Patients who undergo radical treatment, such as surgery and radiotherapy, often report side effects which significantly impact their wellbeing and enjoyment of life, such as urinary and bowel incontinence, low libido, erectile dysfunction, fatigue, mood swings. Our research looks at lifestyle interventions that may help prevent PCA, as well as identifying cases when treatment may be delayed,  in an attempt to best support outcomes for people with PCA.

Image by pixel2013 from Pixabay

How does treatment choice affect survival?

In the ProtecT study people were randomised to various treatments or active surveillance where no treatment is given but the patient is regularly followed-up. The study found similar chances of surviving localised PCA, with those in the active surveillance group only having a very small decrease in survival compared to the other groups. This prompted a spur of research in identifying modifiable factors which could delay PCA progression and therefore avoid unnecessary treatment.

One of the aims of our research is to look at dietary and lifestyle changes that are acceptable and achievable to PCA patients, which could reduce PCA risk and progression. These could prevent PCA or, for those who have already been diagnosed with localised disease, delay treatment and therefore avoid the associated side effects.

Dietary and physical activity interventions in people with PCA

In the PrEvENT  feasibility randomised controlled trial, patients who underwent prostate removal surgery were randomly assigned to both a dietary and a physical activity intervention. The dietary intervention consisted of either:

  • a lycopene supplement, which is an antioxidant found in tomatoes and has been previously be suggested to be protective for PCA
  • eating 5 portions of fruit and vegetable per day and replacing dairy milk with a vegan option (soy, almond, oat, coconut etc)
  • continue as normal.

The physical activity intervention asked participants to do 30 minutes of brisk walking five times a week.

Image by PublicDomainArchive from Pixabay

For each intervention, we looked at the change in metabolites, which are very small molecules found in blood that reflect metabolic patterns, a very useful measure in diseases where there are metabolic changes, such as cancer.  We found that eating more fruit and vegetables and decreasing dairy changed blood metabolite levels. Of particular interest was the change in pyruvate levels, a metabolite used as fuel in the pathway of cancer cell proliferation. This suggests that our interventions could lead to less energy being available to the proliferation of cancerous cells, which could lead to lower PCA risk and progression.

Can we predict which PCA cases do not need treatment?

A second aim of my research is to identify blood markers that can help distinguish disease that is unlikely to cause problems from aggressive disease that will advance rapidly and require treatment. We looked at the ProtecT trial and provisionally identified metabolites that could help predict PCA progression. This would allow clinicians to more accurately decide if the patient should take up treatment or if active surveillance would be appropriate.

Patients diagnosed with localised PCA have 96% chance of surviving 15 years after diagnosis.  However, PCA risk factors have yet to be conclusively identified. In addition, the diagnosing techniques are invasive and there is uncertainty around which localised cases are likely to advance. More research is therefore needed to establish potential risk factors which could help prevent PCA, and blood-based markers that could predict the aggressiveness of localised PCA cases. We are also looking at the relationship between PCA risk and progression and blood DNA methylation markers, which allow cells to control the expression of genes and have previously been suggested to be responsive to both environmental factors and causes of cancer and could help us better understand the aetiology of PCA.

So what does this mean for people with prostate cancer?

Although more research is required as our studies were small and did not aim to have definitive answers,  we did find some evidence to suggest that some lifestyle changes, namely increased fruit and vegetable consumption and replacing milk with non-dairy options and walking 30 minutes a day, 5 times a week are acceptable to PCA patients and that these interventions may have promising effects on blood metabolites. Identifying lifestyle factors which may have a protective role could help prevent PCA cases. Our research also identified metabolites which may help predict the aggressiveness of PCA which could help patients diagnosed with localised PCA avoid serious side effects by not undertaking unnecessary treatment.

Further reading and resources

Find out more about prostate cancer

Find out more about the treatments available for prostate cancer

Journal paper: Hamdy et al (2016) 10 year outcomes after monitoring, surgery, or radiotherapy for localised prostate cancer (the ProtecT trial)

Journal paper: Hackshaw-McGeagh et al (2016) Prostate cancer – evidence of exercise and nutrition trial (PrEvENT): study protocol for a randomised controlled feasibility trial.