Editorial: More help in the trenches for the opioid fight

  • An addict injects heroin, even as a fentanyl test strip registered a positive result for contamination, Wednesday Aug. 22, 2018, in New York. AP PHOTO/Bebeto Matthews

Published: 10/10/2018 8:09:35 AM

Crisis is not a strong enough word to describe the catastrophic results of the opioid addiction epidemic both nationally and in our own backyard over the last two decades, and in particular the last five years.

The death figures, while repeated often, are alarming every time — overdoses involving opioids led to the death of more than 49,000 people in the United States in 2017, according to federal figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a whopping four-fold increase from 2002 when over 10,000 people died.

In Massachusetts, the numbers, while down slightly in 2017 from 2016, are still alarming — more than 2,000 died, Department of Health figures show. The declining trend is likely to continue in 2018, based on DPH numbers that show 657 confirmed opioid-related deaths in the first six months of the year. The department estimates another 322 to 396 deaths by the end of the year, which would bring the total to about 1,050.

That’s still too many lives. But the downward trend is a hugely positive step, thanks in part to the contributions of one of the best regional prevention efforts in the country led by several groups in western Massachusetts. The work of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin has been a model for other parts of the country, and the work of Hampshire HOPE, a similar organization in Hampshire County, is also proving effective.

The successes of these organizations are being noticed. In the last two weeks, both groups landed more federal and state money to target two important areas — one that aims at addressing opioid addiction among younger people, and another to collect critical data that will make it easier to know where the problems are and how to best allocate resources to stop them.

Late last week, the Department of Justice awarded a $1 million grant to the Franklin County task force to further study the causes and effects of the opioid crisis among young adults, including data collection about people ages 16 to 24 struggling with opioid addiction. Only six communities nationwide were awarded such grants.

This is important because of what opioids are doing to society’s younger generation — CDC figures show that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50, with opioids playing a massive role in those deaths.

The task force will use the money over the next three years to both help young adults who are using substances and to find ways to prevent addiction in the first place. Though headquartered in Franklin County, the Young Adult Empowerment Collaborative of Western Massachusetts program will stretch from one end of the Valley to the other and include collaboration with agencies in all four western Massachusetts counties.

“We know that young adults in their late teens and early 20s are at risk for opioid misuse and we want to reach that population and save their young lives,” said J. Cherry Sullivan, coordinator for Hampshire HOPE.

Ideally, the education and training that will come out of this initiative won’t disappear as the federal money dries up. It’s encouraging to hear that officials are already plotting future funding.

Hampshire HOPE, meanwhile, late last month landed a $100,000 state grant to help create a regional opioid database that will include information related to drug usage, overdoses and treatment in one central location. The database will make it easier to track community needs and progress in addressing the epidemic, something that doesn’t currently exist at the state level. The data collected will be used to better understand health outcomes and improve communication between different teams and agencies.

We have used this page before to commend the work these agencies in Franklin and Hampshire counties are doing to address the devastating damage that opioid misuse is causing to our fellow citizens.

It’s important to remind people that some of the best work in the country in this field is happening right here in the Valley — and it’s critical to all of us that they succeed.

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