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The puzzling surge of heroin overdose
A sudden rise in heroin overdose and related fatalities in Massachusetts earlier this year indicated a new wave of opioid cases.
Noticing an alarming 114 fatalities related to opioid overdose in December last year, the then-governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency. The figure was more than double the 60 fatalities recorded in November, as reported by the Boston Globe.
Reasons for this sudden surge are still being debated. One probable cause believed to be responsible for this sharp increase is the recent addition of deadly ingredients to heroin in order to achieve a greater high. Earlier in 2013, heroin combined with traces of Fentanyl hit the market claiming hundreds of lives in Massachusetts within just a few months. Fentanyl is an opioid utilized in end-of-life care that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine and 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. Back in 2007, the then-trending abuse of Fentanyl killed more than a thousand people within a short span nationwide.
“We believe there is a strong likelihood that the increase in overdoses is due to a strong batch of the drug,” said Rachel McGuire, a Boston police spokeswoman. “Our drug-control unit continues to make controlled purchases of the drug throughout the city in an effort to find the source or sources.”
However, another long-standing reason for the increase in heroin overdose could be the tighter restrictions on prescription drugs. Due to the increased costs of painkillers and more strict laws, heroin offers a cheaper and more accessible option.
It is important to understand the relationship between heroin and prescription drugs to fully make sense of this transition. Heroin is an opioid compound essentially derived from morphine. Morphine is extracted from the opium poppy plant. This particular opioid compound acts similar to endorphins, which are natural hormones produced by the body that creates feelings of happiness, contentment and well-being.
Hence, the similarities between heroin addiction and painkillers abuse essentially stem from the opiates contained in both of these substances. Since opiates are considered to be highly addictive elements, the abuse of painkillers ultimately leads to addiction. Even though heroin is illegal and opioid pills such as OxyContin are FDA-approved, they both originate from the poppy plant. As a result, their chemical structures are highly similar and both the substances affect the same group of receptors in the human brain.
Heroin and painkillers produce similar results that include an increase in pain tolerance and a sense of euphoria alongside drowsiness, nausea, restlessness and occasional diarrhea. Higher doses can lead to respiratory depression, even to a point where the user may stop breathing altogether and die.
Dr. Jeff Baxter, chief medical officer for Spectrum Health Systems, believed the recent spike to be nothing but a reflection of the cyclical nature of the criminal drug business. This will cause fluctuations in overdose deaths of a cyclical nature.
“There’s absolutely no predictability to the production, delivery and processing of heroin,” Baxter said. “The drug could be coming from places as far-flung as Pakistan, Burma, Mexico or some guy who’s experimenting in New York City and cutting it with A, B or C to see it if drives up his profits.”
Dr. Daniel Alford, supervisor of the Clinical Addiction Research and Education Unit at Boston Medical Center, reported some patients noticing changes in the texture and composition of their heroin. Unfamiliar crystals had been discovered.
Dr. Philip Bolduc, assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, acknowledged the associated risks of some users switching to heroin for convenience and cost. “I absolutely agree that is happening, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be tightening the reins on prescription painkillers,” Bolduc said.
Meanwhile, the Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has established a city-run Office of Recovery Services, which is going to be responsible for improving the current standards of addiction and recovery services.
“We have to do more as a society, more as a government, around education and drug addiction,” Walsh said.
The Boston Drug Treatment Rehab Center is committed to providing you the best drug addiction treatment program that will be tailored to your particular needs and situation. If you or a loved one is currently seeking recovery from addiction to heroin or any other substance of abuse, do not hesitate to contact us.