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There's some relief in the latest snapshot of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts, as an estimated 167 fewer residents died in the first nine months of 2017, as compared with the same period last year.
"This new report shows some trend lines that are moving in the right direction ... but there are still too many people dying from overdoses," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement on Monday.
Opioid overdose deaths continued to rise in many states last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There’s no indication yet that other states are seeing a decline in deaths that mirrors Massachusetts.
“It’s possible we are a positive anomaly,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “Massachusetts has been very assertive in our response to the opioid crisis. Our trend in the decline in opioid overdoses is not the national norm, but we also collect data really, really well.”
No one is suggesting that Massachusetts has turned the tide on the opioid epidemic. The drop is encouraging, but it's not clear why fewer men, women and children are dying after an overdose.
"Does this mean we're getting better at recognizing overdoses and treating them?" asks Harvard Medical School instructor Dr. David Scales. "That would be good news, but it doesn't mean that we're preventing overdoses from happening."
Better revival rates may be part of the answer in Massachusetts. EMS use of naloxone, the drug that reverses an opioid overdose, rose for the first six months of this year, though its use was as high during some parts of last year.
But in some communities, calls to EMS are down, as are deaths.
"I don't think it's just a decrease in fatalities; at least in Norwood, we've also seen a decline in nonfatal overdoses," said Norwood Chief of Police William Brooks.
Brooks says more people are paying attention to the opioid epidemic and ramping up prevention efforts. His officers are among those across the state that follow up with overdose victims, visiting them at home and offering information about treatment.
Dr. Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, says the move to treat addiction as a disease rather than a criminal violation must continue.
"Massachusetts has been a leader in doing a lot of things right," Galea said. He points to the state's investment in treatment, better access to these programs and a tighter prescription monitoring program.
The Baker administration says there was a 30 percent drop in the number of Massachusetts patients who received an opioid prescription in the third quarter of 2017, as compared with the first three months of 2015.
Doctors say it would be too early for a drop in prescriptions to translate to fewer deaths from street drugs. Fentanyl, often combined with an anti-anxiety medicine such as Xanax or Klonopin, is found in 81 percent of confirmed overdose deaths.
There are a few other disturbing trends in the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts. The death rate for Hispanics doubled from 2014 to 2016.
"There is a disproportionate impact on opioid-related deaths among Hispanics," Secretary Sudders said. "As we roll out new strategies and interventions, we need to really provide culturally responsive and targeted interventions for individuals who are Hispanic."
The total confirmed deaths for 2016 is now 2,094 -- still nearly six people every day.
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