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New data give glimmer of hope in fight against overdose deaths

Narcan, an antidote for a heroin overdose.
Narcan, an antidote for a heroin overdose. (Alex Wroblewski/The New York Times)

The city of Lynn, long a hot spot in the state’s opioid epidemic, is seeing one small hint of progress amid the region’s unrelenting addiction crisis. And that glimmer from Lynn may herald better news statewide.

In this city 10 miles north of Boston, people are surviving overdoses at significantly higher rates than in the past, according to new data.

The opioid problem remains severe: Overdoses continue to soar with the growing prevalence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl. Even so, the number of people dying in Lynn has held relatively steady for four years.

More people are surviving because the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, best known by the trade name Narcan, has become widely available, in the hands of police and firefighters as well as users and bystanders.

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“All the work that communities are doing in Narcan, it’s really paying off,” said Mark Kennard, executive director of Project COPE, an affiliate of Bridgewell. “It literally is saving lives.” Project COPE, a Lynn addiction treatment provider, performed the data analysis.

Previously, police encountering a person who had overdosed had to wait for emergency medical services to administer naloxone. Now, police carry it in their cars and are able to respond more quickly in situations when minutes count, Kennard said.

Project COPE gathered information from police and the medical examiner. It found that the percentage of overdoses that turned fatal dropped from 35.6 percent in 2012 to 15.7 percent in 2015.

It’s not known whether other communities are seeing similar effects. But it is clear that use of naloxone is up statewide. The number of emergency medical transports in which the drug was administered nearly doubled from 2013 to 2015.

And data from Boston suggest a similar trend. Naloxone use nearly tripled from 2012 to 2015, according to Boston Emergency Medical Services. In the first nine months of 2015, Boston EMS recorded 47 suspected overdose deaths. In the same period this year, deaths had dropped to 39.

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Devin Larkin, director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Recovery Services Bureau, said she wouldn’t be surprised to see a reduction in overdose deaths in Boston when the year’s final tally is in. “If in fact deaths do decline, I would attribute that to people who are trained in overdose prevention,” Larkin said.

Dr. Monica Bharel, state commissioner of public health, said statewide data are not showing any decline in overdose deaths, which have tripled in Massachusetts since 2010. But naloxone is “a key tool” in the state’s efforts to combat overdoses, she said.

“I believe all the work being done on this opioid epidemic is having an impact,” Bharel said.

Dr. Alexander Walley, an addiction medicine specialist at Boston Medical Center, regards the numbers with cautious optimism.

“I hope this is the tide turning,” he said. “People who are rescued every day, who have a second chance — that’s what keeps me going.”

Walley noted that no one knows how many overdoses actually occur. In one-quarter to one-half of overdoses, he said, emergency medical services are not summoned — and in those cases, if the person survives, the overdose is not counted. But the increase in recorded overdoses may partly reflect a greater willingness to seek help.

Massachusetts has been promoting naloxone for a decade, and in recent years, health officials have stepped up that effort. Since 2007, a state program in 22 communities has offered instruction in recognizing and responding to overdoses to opioid users, their relatives and friends, and others who may witness an overdose.

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State grants — $700,000 in the current fiscal year — have helped police and fire departments in 32 communities purchase naloxone. A state bulk-purchasing program that started in November gets a discount on naloxone, and has distributed 10,000 lower-cost doses to 127 communities. And since 2014, people who are at risk of overdosing, or know someone who is, can obtain naloxone kits at some 1,200 pharmacies without a prescription.

Walley and others said there is no evidence to support the notion that naloxone encourages people to use more drugs because they believe they will be rescued. And Larkin noted that naloxone results in an extremely unpleasant experience, one that no addict seeks.

“When you receive Narcan, it puts you right into withdrawal,” she said. “You wake up sick.”


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer