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Opioids are major contributor to mortality rate in Massachusetts, experts say

Opioids accounted for 53 percent of accidental deaths in 2015.
Opioids accounted for 53 percent of accidental deaths in 2015.(Patrick Sison/Associated Press/File 2017)

Life expectancy in the United States has declined for the second year in a row, according to a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health officials say opioid overdoses are a major factor in Massachusetts.

The death rate from drug overdoses rose by 21 percent nationwide in 2016, according to the report.

In Massachusetts, the number of opioid-related deaths declined by an estimated 10 percent in the first nine months of this year from the first nine months of 2016, according to the Department of Public Health.

However, unintentional deaths by poisoning was one of the most common causes of death in Massachusetts in 2014, the year for which data was most recently available, according to a report from the DPH. Drug overdoses account for the largest percent of deaths by poisoning.

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The Boston Public Health Commission also classifies an overdose as an unintentional death, which was the third leading cause of death in Boston in 2013, 2014, and 2015, said Dan Dooley, the director of the commission’s research department.

Opioids accounted for 32 percent of accidental deaths in Boston in 2011, 34 percent in 2012, 40 percent in 2013, 47 percent in 2014, and 53 percent in 2015, he said.

“What’s really happened for us is that the opioid epidemic really started to take off in 2013, with fentanyl being attributed to the increases,” he said. “That was driving the increase in the opioid mortality that we’ve seen in Boston.”

Wendy Kent, the director of behavioral health and prevention programs at Bridgewell, an addiction treatment center in Peabody, said she’s also seen an increase in overdoses related to fentanyl.

“Fentanyl certainly is a huge factor when we look at the death data,” she said.

Kent said cases in which people have mixed opioids with alcohol or other sedative drugs are also troubling in terms of mortality.

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“If someone uses two or three respiratory suppressants, the chance[s] of [them] going into an overdose are much greater,” she said.

While the number of opioid-related deaths has declined in the state, Dooley said that does not mean the epidemic is over.

“Even if it drops a little bit, it’s still at record high rates,” he said. “From an epidemiological standpoint . . . that’s an indication that the epidemic is still with us, it’s just that the rate of increase has subsided.”


Alyssa Meyers can be reached at alyssa.meyers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ameyers_.