Department of Public Health Figures Showing an 8.3 Percent Decline in Opioid-related Overdose Deaths in This State Would Seem to Provide Evidence for Those Fighting This War on Drug Abuse That Their Combined Efforts Have Begun to Show Results.

February 16, 2018 GMT

There were 1,977 suspected or confirmed fatal opioid overdoses in 2017; that’s 178 fewer than the 2,155 recorded the previous year. It’s an abrupt turnaround from 2015 to 2016, when the opioid overdose death rate increased 22 percent.

There’s still far too many people dying from injecting or otherwise consuming illegal drugs.

Certainly, any optimism derived from these figures must be tempered by the realization of the enormous task that still lies ahead -- especially in light of the underlying reasons for the decline in deaths.

No doubt, initiatives supported by Gov. Charlie Baker, the Legislature and medical community -- including prescription monitoring, educational outreach, and funding for 1,100 more treatment beds -- have made an impact.

However, it appears the primary reason for the decline in deaths can be traced to the increased availability and use of the overdose-antidote drug naloxone, more commonly known as Narcan.

EMS personnel, police and firefighters throughout the state now carry the live-saving drug, and it is available at pharmacies. Still Narcan’s success has clouded the effectiveness of other drug-fighting tools. The DPH figures don’t indicate how many people survived overdoses or the rate of addiction, which would provide a more accurate barometer of this state’s substance-abuse prevention efforts.

And that’s a concern of many medical providers, including Gabrielle “Abby” Dean, clinical director of Right Turn, a Watertown provider of outpatient addiction treatment.

She told The Boston Globe that the widespread use of naloxone “is going to hide the real problem.”

Yes, there’s been a slight drop in the number of EMS incidents involving the administration of naloxone. In the first three quarters of 2017, there were 13,785 incidents, down slightly from the 13,917 during the same period in 2016, but the drug’s more widespread availability could account for that.

What’s not in dispute? That the more than doubling of drug-overdose calls in Massachusetts since 2013 has put a severe strain on communities’ public-safety personnel and resources. Especially when these first responders are called to repeatedly revive the same drug abusers.

That’s what a pending bill sponsored by Gov. Baker would target. It seeks to create more options for access to addiction treatment, enable more schools to educate young people on the risks of opioids, and more directly align the health care system with the needs of those struggling with drug abuse.

Everyone would agree more needs to be done, especially through education to discourage youngsters from experimenting with drugs, and treatment in order to put substance abusers on a sober, productive path.

That’s something Narcan alone can’t accomplish.