As we enter 2015, Massachusetts is in the midst of a health crisis that has resulted in an alarming number of tragic, preventable deaths. According to a Boston Globe report and the Department of Public Health, heroin overdose deaths in Massachusetts have been climbing for the past several years, going from 526 in 2010 to 863 in 2013. Just last month, 16 heroin-related deaths were recorded statewide in a single weekend.
Jamie Zimmerman, Program Manager of AIDS Action Committee’s Cambridge Needle Exchange center, is at the front lines of this crisis. Needle Exchange is one of four state-sanctioned and state-funded syringe exchange programs in Massachusetts. It also serves as a drop-in center that provides life-saving risk reduction supplies and drug addiction counseling. Through her work at the Needle Exchange, Zimmerman has observed the surge in heroin overdoses first hand.
“This is something that has been increasing for the past decade, and has really come to a head in the past couple of years,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in heroin deaths in Boston, the South Shore, and in Worcester. We’ve also gotten reports of a particularly strong brand of dope on the streets now.”
Needle Exchange primarily serves active drug injection users, Zimmerman explained, 90% of which are heroin users. For many of its clients, prescription drug abuse preceded heroin addiction.
“I think this increase in heroin overdoses is an unfortunate and inevitable consequence of the overprescribing of opiate pain medication,” she said. “That’s the story that we get from a lot of our clients, especially the new, younger heroin users – they started on pills, which became too expensive to maintain, so they switch to cheaper street heroin.”
“The shear volume of heroin demand is driving more products to come into the state, because the population is demanding it,” Zimmerman added. “The number of users is not decreasing – it’s only increasing. If we at Needle Exchange can access more people in 2015, that means more people will be getting clean supplies, education, and life-saving Narcan.”
Local and state drug abuse treatment centers are critical to combatting rising heroin overdoses, stressed Fenway Health’s Manager of Medical Social Work & Substance Abuse Services Frank Busconi. “We need to be making opiate-specific treatments more available for people,” he said. “It can be hard to find out there if you don’t have a lot of money. Suboxone clinics [for opiate addiction treatment], like we have here at Fenway, are great, but [Suboxone] is in high demand and short supply.”
Prevention-focused drug education should also be widely available in schools and community centers, Busconi added. “These programs can educate young people about decision-making and risks as they encounter alcohol and other drugs in their lives,” he said.
Addiction Risk Reduction and Treatment Services Available Through Fenway Health and AIDS Action Committee
AIDS Action Committee’s two Needle Exchange program locations distribute clean needles and risk reduction materials, such as crack kits, safer injection supplies, condoms, Narcan, and educational tools. The Needle Exchange also offers periodic support groups and individual risk reduction counseling, information and referrals to medical, substance use, and other social service providers. Locations and hours are as follows:
The Needle Exchange at Green Street
359 Green Street, Cambridge, MA 02139
Hours: Monday, Thursday, Friday 10 am-4:45 pm; Tuesday 12 pm-4:45 pm; Wednesday 10 am-7:00 pm
The Needle Exchange at Amory Street
75 Amory Street, Jamaica Plain, MA 02119
Hours: Monday-Friday 10 am-4 pm
Fenway Health offers walk-in detox acupuncture, which is an effective and holistic method of treating substance dependency. There are also several substance abuse support groups at Fenway that meet on a regular basis in a safe, confidential space. For more information on the substance abuse recovery programs at Fenway, please call 617.927.6202.
In addition to the programs at AIDS Action Committee and Fenway Health, there are a number of other area resources to help those struggling with drug use.
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