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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

While the abuse of prescription opioids has received widespread attention, benzodiazepine (BZD) sedatives have seen a similar growth rate, with prescription rates nearly doubling since 2003.

Why it matters: In the U.S., deaths associated with BZDs like Xanax and Valium have increased from 135 in 1999 to over 11,500 in 2017. The dangers of misusing these potentially addictive drugs are particularly acute for adults over 50, who have experienced the largest increase in BZD prescriptions.

What's happening: The increase in deaths and overdoses associated with BZDs has been driven by misuse. Although BZDs are intended to be used for less than 14 days, chronic use — over 120 days — is common.

What's needed:

What to watch: Policymakers are beginning to recognize the harmful side effects of BZDs and other hypnotics. Policy reform — coupled with prescriber accountability and provider and patient education — could mitigate dangerous trends of misuse.

Nambi J. Ndugga and Elsa Pearson are policy analysts at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH). Melissa Garrido is the associate director of the Partnered Evidence-Based Policy Resource Center at the Veterans Health Administration and a research associate professor at BUSPH.

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled late Wednesday that restrictions previously imposed on New York places of worship by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) during the coronavirus pandemic violated the First Amendment.

Why it matters: The decision in a 5-4 vote heralds the first significant action by the new President Trump-appointed conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast the deciding vote in favor of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

USAID chief tests positive for coronavirus

An Air Force cargo jet delivers USAID supplies to Russia earlier this year. Photo: Mikhail Metzel/TASS via Getty Images

The acting administrator of the United States Agency for International Development informed senior staff Wednesday he has tested positive for coronavirus, two sources familiar with the call tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Barsa, who staffers say rarely wears a mask in their office, is the latest in a series of senior administration officials to contract the virus. His positive diagnosis comes amid broader turmoil at the agency following the election.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
11 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 shows a bright future for vaccines

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Promising results from COVID-19 vaccine trials offer hope not just that the pandemic could be ended sooner than expected, but that medicine itself may have a powerful new weapon.

Why it matters: Vaccines are, in the words of one expert, "the single most life-saving innovation ever," but progress had slowed in recent years. New gene-based technology that sped the arrival of the COVID vaccine will boost the overall field, and could even extend to mass killers like cancer.