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May 14, 2019

Philadelphia reports 8% drop in drug overdose deaths in 2018

Public Health Overdoses
fentanyl overdose deaths Jon Tyson /Unsplash

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health found that the number of overdose deaths in the city dropped by more than 100 in 2018, marking a decline of 8% over the previous year.

Figures released on Tuesday show that there were 1,116 overdose deaths last year, down from 1,217 in 2017. While modest, the number is encouraging compared to the 34% increase from 907 deaths in 2016 to 2017

Last year, opioids were detected in 84% of victims, down from 88% the previous year.

“I’m devastated that drug overdoses claimed the lives of 1,116 people last year,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “Any life lost prematurely is tragic. But I am also hopeful that we are finally making progress in combating the worst public health crisis of our lifetime."

Deaths involving fentanyl, the synthetic opioid most responsible for the rise in fatal overdoses, also were down slightly in 2018. The drug was found in 84% of opioid overdose deaths last year compared to 93% in 2017. From 2016 to 2017, there was a 95% increase in opioid deaths involving fentanyl.

Demographically, men were three times more likely than women to die of a drug overdose, peaking between the ages of 35-54.

Philadelphia has taken progressive action over the past year to reduce the risk of overdose and improve the city's responses to them. Public health officials credited the overdose antidote naloxone in bringing down the number of deaths in 2018, with more widespread availability and training for the public.

The city has also worked to clear notorious drug encampments in Kensington and provide treatment services to those who have been displaced.

"We didn’t get into this situation overnight, but it’s clear that because of the extensive work of city employees, the Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic, the Philadelphia Resilience Project, and many partners, we’re seeing positive results and saving lives," Kenney added.

The figures come amid a growing public debate about whether Philadelphia should introduce overdose prevention sites where residents with addiction can safely inject drugs in the presence of trained medical professionals. Officials signaled last month that the controversial issue will require more extensive consideration before any further action is taken.

“While we’re starting to see positive signs, these latest figures show just how far we have to go to end this crisis," Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said. "It took years for the pharmaceutical industry to flood our city with opioids, and it will take years to undo the damage. We remain committed to keeping people alive long enough to get into treatment through the use of naloxone, making sure that treatment is ready for people when they are ready, and stopping new people from being unnecessarily exposed to prescription opioids.”