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Heroin ODs Up 47 Percent in Worcester

Monday, December 10, 2012


Heroin-related overdoses in Worcester have increased by 47 percent so far this year, and the number of all opiate overdoses is up by more than a third, according to a new report from the City's Division of Public Health.

According to the City of Worcester's Division of Public Health (WDPH), through the end of November, the number of all opiate overdoses in the city increased by approximately 37 percent from 2011, and heroin-specific overdoses increased by approximately 47 percent from the prior year.

An Alarming Trend

"Recent analysis of local EMS and ED (emergency department) data reveals that in 2012, Worcester has had a significant increase in the numbers of opiate related overdoses and ED visits compared to recent years," said Dr. Michael Hirsh, acting commissioner of the WDPH.

That data also indicated that the number of heroin-related ED visits has risen by 145 percent over the past four years, from around 80 in 2008 to just over 200 in the first 11 months of 2012.

"These numbers are alarming and require further WDPH investigation to discover the root cause of the surge of heroin related visits," Dr. Hirsh said.

A 2011 regional youth health survey conducted in high schools in and around Worcester previously turned up some alarming data about teen drug use. According to the survey, 23.4 percent of high-school age individuals used marijuana, and 23.1 percent were offered, sold or given an illegal drug on school property. Just over 1 in 10 respondents reported lifetime prescription drug use in the 9th grade, and that number nearly doubled to 18.6 precent in the 12th grade.

With regard to opioids in particular, the survey found 4.9 percent of 9th graders and 7.8 percent of 12th graders reported current opioid use, and 4.9 percent of high school students reported lifetime heroin use.

"Studies show that the majority of teens who abuse prescription drugs obtain them from family and friends for free, including from the home medicine cabinet," Dr. Hirsh said.

"This data, and the 2011 Worcester Youth Health Survey, suggests that there has been a shift in the population abusing illicit and prescription drugs; youth."

A "Significant Public Health Challenge"

"Based on qualitative and quantitative data, opiate and prescription drug use remains a significant public health challenge for the City," said City Manager Michael O'Brien, nothing that such drug use was identified as one of the top three areas for the WDPH to focus its efforts in its "Health of Worcester" report.

Worcester received a prevention grant from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS) back in 2008, when opioid overdoses accounted for an estimated 29 deaths in the City, to reduce the number of such cases. Dr. Hirsh said the WDPH convened a coalition of stakeholders, including law enforcement, hospitals, treatment providers, community-based organizations and families, to assist the City in assessing the severity of the overdose problem and choosing the right responses to reduce the high overdose rates.

"Since that time, the WDPH has worked in tandem with the Worcester Police Department Vice Squad to hold monthly informal dialogs with those in recovery, or actively using, about the importance of calling 911 during an overdose," he said.

An opioid overdose curriculum has been developed with the Worcester County House of Corrections as part of its program for inmates with histories of substance abuse. With over 30 individual and organization members, the Worcester Youth Substance Abuse Task Force meets monthly to share data and resources, as well as explore possible prevention tactics.

Other initiatives include the Worcester Cares About Recovery Walk & Celebration and numerous prescription drug take back days.

One program to combat the rising number of opioid overdoses that has taken some criticism is the state Department of Health's Opioid Overdose Prevention and Reversal Project. The pilot program makes the prescription drug naloxone, which blocks opioids and restores normal breathing when administered during an overdose, available for free to individuals over the age of 18 who are either current users of opiates or likely to come across a friend or loved one experiencing an overdose.

In Worcester, the pilot program is administered by AIDS Project Worcester and has documented 30 overdose reversals since it was introduced in November 2011. The Main South Alliance for Public Safety has opposed to program for distributing a prescription drug and offering drug users a sense of confidence that could encourage more use. However, the community group has pushed for the use of naloxone by the Worcester Police and Fire Departments when responding to overdose calls.

Just last month, the City was awarded $360,000 in Partnership for Success funds from the state health department's BSAS for a three year grant to reduce prescription drug abuse among the 12- to 25-year-old population.

"Working with our various Coalitions, we will work with local, state and national data to select evidenced based strategies that will tackle these issues," said Dr. Hirsh.

The WDPH has also been at work developing its Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP), which has identified underage drinking, tobacco, opioids and prescription drug abuse as "major public health concerns." Those key areas will be the department's main focus over the next four years. 

"This will be a critical tool as we strive for continued improvements to these serious public health issues," O'Brien said.


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