- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 6, 2017

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) - The number of Maine overdose deaths so far this year is on par with 2016, suggesting the numbers are leveling off while still averaging one per day, the state said Wednesday.

There were 185 drug overdose deaths in the first six months of the year - a slight decline from the same period in 2016, according to data from Maine’s chief medical examiner.

But officials aren’t cheering the numbers, and the report’s author says more data is needed to establish whether the upward trend has come to an end.

“The opioid epidemic continues to devastate our communities, both rural and urban, all across Maine,” Attorney General Janet Mills said in a statement.

Maine and the rest of New England are grappling with an epidemic of addiction and deaths associated with heroin, the painkiller fentanyl and prescription opioids. The state set a record in 2016 for total number of overdose deaths with 376, compared with 272 the year before.

All told, 85 percent of the deaths in the first half of 2017 were categorized as accidental overdoses, and 84 percent of the overdoses were caused by at least one opioid, either an illegal substance or prescription drug, according to the report.

The data compiled by Dr. Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center indicates the overdose antidote Naloxone was given to more than a third of overdose victims who died.

That’s an increase from 25 percent the year before, suggesting more first responders and families have access to the life-saving drug. Many more were undoubtedly saved by the drug, which must be administered quickly to be effective, Sorg said.

“At least people are attempting to reverse these overdoses,” she said.

One cause for concern was that fentanyl and similar powerful opioids were responsible for 61 percent of deaths, either alone or in combination with other drugs, the report said.

While heroin use remains far more prevalent than fentanyl, fentanyl use accounts a greater proportion of deaths because of its potency, Sorg said.

Both prescription opioids and illicit opioids are often found together in a fatal mix of drugs, the report said. Pharmaceutical opioids caused 30 percent of the deaths, either alone or in combination with other drugs, the report said.

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