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Latest state tally finds overdose deaths have leveled off, Narcan credited

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 14. 2018 4:07PM
Narcan is available as a nasal spray and as an injectable antidote to opioid overdoses. (BEA LEWIS/CORRESPONDENT FILE)

Drug overdose deaths between 2016 and 2017 stayed level, the first time since 2012 drug deaths didn’t rise significantly, according to the latest state numbers.

There were 487 fatal overdoses in 2017, with two more potential drug deaths still under investigation, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Overdoses had risen steadily over the previous five years, from 163 in 2012 to 485 in 2016.

Public health and safety officials largely attribute the leveling-off to the proliferation of naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug commonly known as Narcan.

“That’s due to the combined efforts of our great first responders, the Safe Stations program, and the availability of Narcan,” said Patrick Tufts, CEO of Granite United Way and chairman of the governor’s drug and alcohol abuse commission. “The data shows that it’s saving lives.”

As in recent years, the majority of overdose deaths in 2017 were linked either solely to fentanyl (201 deaths) or a combination of fentanyl and other drugs (170 deaths).

Much of what is sold as heroin in New Hampshire is actually partially or wholly fentanyl, a significantly more powerful drug. There are testing strips drug users can use to determine if fentanyl is present, but they don’t indicate how much of the drug is present and so do little to dissuade opioid users from using a substance that tests positive, according to Dr. Seddon Savage, a Dartmouth College anesthesiologist who is also on the governor’s commission.

Fentanyl overdoses often require a higher dose of Narcan to reverse that heroin or prescription opioids.

Overall, the number incidents in which EMS providers used Narcan is lower so far in 2018 than it has been in the past three years, according to an April report from the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative.

That doesn’t necessarily mean less Narcan is being administered, though. State and public health agencies have worked hard to ensure that more people — both drug users and people they interact with — have Narcan and are trained to use it, said David Mara, Gov. Chris Sununu’s behavioral health and addiction adviser.

“It’s good that (the number of deaths) has leveled off, but people are still dying,” Mara said. “We need to do a lot more and keep on doing what we’re doing to stem that tide.”

“We want to fill in the gap for the whole continuum of care, so that if somebody is looking for or seeking treatment, we want to, number one, find treatment for them and, number two, if treatment isn’t available find them transitional housing until that treatment is available,” the former Manchester police chief said. “We also want to make sure that when people get done with treatment we’re not just sending them back to the same environment.”

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