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Maryland overdose deaths jump

An alarming spike in heroin and other drug overdose deaths in Maryland has prompted what the state's health secretary calls an "all hands on deck" effort to investigate and treat addiction.

The number of drug- and alcohol-related deaths in Maryland rose to 858 in 2013 from 799 the previous year, according to data released by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on Friday.

Much of the increase is due to heroin, particularly when it is laced with fentanyl, a powerful prescription painkiller used by cancer and other patients, now being illicitly manufactured in drug labs, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the department's secretary.

Heroin-related deaths jumped 18 percent between 2012 and 2013, continuing a recent upward trend: The 464 people who died of heroin overdoses in 2013 represent an 88 percent increase since 2011. Fentanyl-related deaths doubled between 2012 and 2013 from 29 to 58.

Deaths attributed to prescription opioid drugs and cocaine remained stable from 2012 to 2013, while oxycodone- and methadone-related deaths continued the downward trend of recent years. Alcohol-related deaths went up 23 percent, with more than half of the victims also having used heroin.

For Sharfstein, formerly Baltimore's health commissioner, the increase in heroin deaths is particularly troubling because the city had succeeded in driving them down, from 312 in 1999 to 106 in 2008. He attributed that to an increase in access to treatment programs.

"We have pretty good access to treatment in Baltimore now. There's no waiting list anymore," he said. "Now, it's more of a statewide problem."

The 2013 data, for example, showed that heroin deaths doubled in Frederick County, from 10 in 2012 to 21 in 2013.

In releasing the annual report, Gov. Martin O'Malley also announced several initiatives to help reduce the number of overdose deaths by a previously announced goal of 20 percent by 2015. Among them is the formation of the Overdose Prevention Council, which will bring together officials from health, public safety, juvenile and other state agencies to develop a plan for combating the problem.

The state also is launching a public education campaign, including a Facebook page — Substance Use Disorders in Maryland.

Already underway is an effort to make naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, more widely used. Earlier this year, Anne Arundel County became the first to equip its police officers with the drug.

Sharfstein said state officials are starting to investigate overdose deaths in the same way that police look at homicides.

"There are far more overdose deaths than homicides in Maryland," he said. "Every homicide is investigated by police. They ask, what are the underlying patterns?"

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