Almost 2,000 opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts show fentanyl dangers rising

PHOTO: Drugs seized during a joint DEA raid in Manchester, New Hampshire. Sept. 13, 2016.PlayGeneva Sands/ABC News
WATCH As Drug Overdose Deaths Escalate, Opioids Continue to Be the Top Killer

The increasing number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts show the state is one of the hardest hit in the nation by the growth of the highly-potent opioid fentanyl.

The number of deaths related to opioids in Massachusetts has risen exponentially in recent years, reaching an estimated 1,979 deaths in 2016 -- a sharp rise from 918 deaths in 2013, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

"The opioid epidemic continues to threaten individuals and families all across Massachusetts and the country," the state's governor, Charlie Baker, said in a statement last week.

He said the state is working to stem the rise of the drug epidemic by "further increasing treatment options and expanding support for law enforcement and their efforts to arrest and convict drug traffickers who prey on vulnerable people, selling them more and more deadly and addictive substances."

While heroin may be the most well-known illicit opioid, fentanyl appears to be more deadly to drug users in the state. After reviewing toxicology reports from 1,374 opioid-related deaths in 2016, where the reports were available, the department found 75 percent were positive for fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid usually prescribed for chronic pain in advanced cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can be 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.

But the state said that the fentanyl they are seeing most is the illicit variety, which is a powder often mixed with either heroin or cocaine to amplify its effects. Users of illicit fentanyl may not know they are being exposed to a much more lethal substance.

The rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts has increased 26 percent from 2014, rising from 20.4 deaths per 100,000 people to 25.8 deaths per 100,00 people. This number is higher than the rate of death for suicides in the U.S., 13.4 deaths per 100,000, and the rate of death from car accidents, 11.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.

The number of fentanyl encounters more than doubled across the U.S. from 5,343 in 2014 to 13,882 in 2015, according to the CDC, and Massachusetts showed more than a 500 percent increase, along with New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

"We are committed to ending the opioid epidemic and will continue our efforts no matter how long it takes," Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said last week, adding that the governor's new budget proposed $145 million for funding to help treat and prevent substance abuse.

While deaths have continued to rise, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health pointed out that were rising at a slower rate in the last few years. Additionally Baker has been working to fight the ongoing opioid crisis in the state since arriving in office in 2015 by spending $180 million on treatment and prevention programs, in addition to launching initiatives to lessen the stigma around drug addiction.