The escalating epidemic of opioid addiction in the United States bares key similarities to the HIV epidemic, according to researchers who argue that these parallels can help guide efforts to combat illicit drug use. Publishing their findings in the American Journal of Medicine, investigators conducted a comparative review of the dual epidemics to hone their thesis.

Opioids are a class of narcotics that include the pain-relieving prescription meds oxycodone, hydrocodone codeine and tramadol and the illegal drug heroin. Both HIV and opioid addiction tend to affect people who are young, otherwise healthy and who suffer from social stigma because of the virus or their addiction. (There is, of course, a large overlap between the two epidemics since many people acquire HIV through injection drug use.) This stigma then compromises efforts to care for addicts. The death rate between the two epidemics is similar, although the public health response to opioid addiction lags behind.

Nearly 16 percent of the population—or 40 million Americans—are addicted to drugs, alcohol and tobacco, with opioid addiction the fastest rising category. The researchers argue that an effective response to the opioid addiction crisis would mirror the human rights–centered effort to combat HIV that took hold in the 1980s. Branching out from that guiding dogma came biomedical breakthroughs, effective antiretroviral treatment, community advocacy and activism—all key elements that could arguably help curb opioid addiction.

To read the press release, click here.

To read the study abstract, click here.