Mass. Focus of Opioid Epidemic Shifts From Heroin to Fentanyl

Associated Press
Published: 5/13/2017 11:09:24 PM
Modified: 5/13/2017 11:20:43 PM

Boston — More than 2,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts last year as the focus of the epidemic continued to shift from heroin to the synthetic drug fentanyl, state officials reported Wednesday.

“There is no question that fentanyl is the killer on the streets right now,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services.

The state in recent years has largely targeted improved access to treatment for opioid addiction and controlling the overprescribing of opioid painkillers by physicians.

But the trends are likely to bring a stepped-up emphasis on law enforcement — in conjunction with other New England states — to stop the influx of deadly fentanyl into the region, Sudders said.

The synthetic opioid can be 50 times more potent than heroin and deadly even in small doses, authorities say.

Updated figures released Wednesday in a quarterly report from the Department of Public Health show 1,933 confirmed opioid-related deaths in 2016, with at least 132 deaths expected to be added after final determinations by the chief medical examiner.

Through the first three months of 2017, there had been 172 confirmed opioid-related deaths and more than 300 others that could be added, the report said.

Fentanyl was present in 77.5 percent of deadly overdoses in the second quarter of last year, a dramatic increase from the 18 percent of deaths fentanyl was present in during the third quarter of 2014.

By contrast, heroin, present in 74 percent of opioid-related deaths in 2014, fell to 33 percent during the last three months of 2016.

“We will continue to monitor trends and respond through targeted prevention, treatment and recovery services to break the negative momentum of this crisis,” Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

While opioid-related deaths have risen for six consecutive years, Sudders noted in an interview that the rate of year-over-year increases has slowed in each of the last three years: from 40 percent in 2014 to 31 percent in 2015 to 16 percent last year.

Also encouraging, she said, was a continued decline in the percentage of overdose deaths tied to prescription opioids: 9 percent in late 2016 compared to 26 percent in the early months of 2014.

Sudders credited the success of a revamped prescription drug monitoring program in slowing the number of prescriptions written for powerful opioid painkillers during the first three months of the current year.

The latest report was the first to include in the overall data opioid-related deaths that were ruled suicides. State officials said the change did not significantly add to the death totals.

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