On The Massachusetts Opioid Crisis

More people than ever are dying in Massachusetts of opioid overdose. Numbers out last week showed 1,379 confirmed deaths from opioid overdose in 2015, a 49 percent increase from 2013. But state officials believe that the true number of deaths is likely much higher. 

Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel calls the rate of opioid deaths in Massachusetts “unprecedented”:

“This problem is across the United States, but it’s particularly hitting us hard in New England.”

What’s more, Bharel confirms that 57 percent of the 1,379 overdose deaths were associated with Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opiate more potent than morphine. “[Fentanyl] may be leading to this increased death rate,” says Bharel.

It’s likely 2016 will bring similar, if not worse, overdose statistics. “It took us a long time to get to the point where we are now, and it will take us persistently working on this to get the numbers to go down,” Bharel explains.

In the first three months of 2016, there have been an estimated 402 opioid deaths in the state— 27 less than there were the year before, but still a significant statistic. 

State officials have worked across the aisle to pass legislation in the hopes of finding an antidote to the opioid epidemic. It’s much harder to access opioids thanks to new restrictions, and Narcan, which works to block the effects of opioids and reverse an overdose, is more available to the public. 

Bharel is proud of the state’s progress, but says there is much more work to be done:

“We have to do more—we’re not done yet, but this is a huge step in the right direction.”

There is a major push among state health officials to change the public perception of opioid addiction. "For this to be treated as a medical disease-- and not a crime-- is a way to go," Bharel says. Massachusetts' State Without Stigma campaign focuses is trying to change the way the public views addiction. Altering the perception of drug abuse could allow the state to overcome this epidemic.

"We have to get this from every angle, every sector, we all have to be involved. It can't just be medicine, it can't just be the doctors, it can't be just public health-- it has to be law enforcement, educators, community members, families. We all have to come together in creative ways," says Bharel.

On Zika

“There has been no local transmission of Zika. Mosquito season is coming, we’re keeping a close eye on this, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure we’re balancing the message of making sure everyone’s aware,” Bharel says. “Most importantly, if somebody is pregnant and they are traveling to a Zika infected area, they should take precaution.”