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Opioid Overdose Deaths In Mass. Continue To Trend Down

Opioid-related overdose deaths have dropped again in Massachusetts, but the presence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl is on the rise.

New data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health show an almost 6% decrease in opioid-related overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2019, compared with the same period in 2018.

(Screenshot of DPH data)
(Screenshot of DPH data)

Released Thursday, the data show that between January and September of 2019 there were 1,460 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts.

In the first nine months of 2018, there were 1,559 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths. State Health Commissioner Monica Bharel credited the decline to the state's approach to combating the opioid epidemic.

"I'm encouraged to see that our public health approach to addressing this medical condition is working," Bharel said. "But this [the report] tells us we have more work to do."

The presence of fentanyl is at an all-time high. In the first six months of 2019, fentanyl was present in 93% of opioid-related overdose deaths where there was a toxicology screen. That's up from 89% of such deaths in 2018.

“Today’s report affirms that our multi-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic is making a difference,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “Although we’ve made progress, we must continue to focus our law enforcement efforts on getting fentanyl off of our streets and out of our neighborhoods.”

Opioids And Pregnancy Data

For the first time the state provided data on pregnant women and opioids. The report — compiled using hospital data — says about 2% of mothers and new babies were shown to have been exposed to opioids or benzodiazepines.

"We are working closely with our health care colleagues as well as communities to say here are where women and their babies are at increased risk," Bharel said. "And we're working closely to make sure both the moms and babies get the services that they need."

The report also broke down opioid-related hospital emergency department visits. It found that in the first nine months of this year the highest number of opioid-related ED visits involved people between 25 and 44 years old. The report also said the percentages of acute opioid- and heroin-related ED visits among men were more than twice those of women. Among opioid-related deaths, 74% were men.

Opioid-related overdose deaths have declined in Massachusetts for two years. DPH estimated there will be between 332-407 additional deaths in 2019.

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Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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