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Remember opioid crisis? It’s gotten worse.

Narcan, generically known as naloxone and used to revive people who overdose on opioids, may not reverse an overdose on xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that has found its way to the streets.

Matt Rourke, AP Photo

Researchers say a series of interventions appear to help with overdose deaths, but warn that they must be scaled pretty high.

By Liz Mineo | Harvard Staff Writer | July 19, 2023

News of the opioid crisis no longer dominates the headlines as it did before the pandemic. However, the problem has not eased but gotten worse. A new study by a group including several Massachusetts General Hospital researchers examined a set of public health interventions that appear promising as a way to reduce overdose deaths.

Deaths involving illicit drugs and prescription opioids have risen since 2017, when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the problem a public health emergency. The number of reported overdose deaths hit 68,000 in 2020 and rose to more than 80,000 by 2021

Using simulation modeling with state and federal data, researchers projected the number of opioid overdose deaths (OODs) could decrease significantly in New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Ohio if the states employed a combination of interventions, such as treatment and medications for opioid use disorder, increasing the availability of naloxone for reversing overdoses, and reducing prescription opioid misuse. The group thinks its findings are applicable to any state.

The Gazette talked to the paper’s lead author, Jagpreet Chhatwal, director of the Institute for Technology Assessment at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, about the findings and the need to act decisively. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.