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Editorial: A public health emergency

Gov. Deval Patrick was correct in declaring a public health emergency over opioid use here in Massachusetts.

As seen in numerous stories in The Recorder and other newspapers across the state, opiate use, as well as the criminal activities to support that addiction, has exploded in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast over the last few years.

And so the governor is right in determining that the state must begin taking decisive action to stem the tide of this epidemic, which is claiming the lives of too many people who have fallen into the clutches of heroin and or painkillers. “At least 140 people have died from suspected heroin overdoses in communities across the commonwealth in the last several months, levels previously unseen,” the governor’s office said recently. “From 2000 to 2012, the number of unintentional opiate overdoses increased by 90 percent.”

To that end, Patrick has called for a $20 million expansion of the drug abuse treatment efforts in the state — as well as some other measures, including allowing all “first responders to carry and administer Naloxone (Narcan), a safe and effective opioid antagonist.” The governor has also called for prohibiting the prescription and dispensing of drugs that contain only hydrocodone, such as Zohydro, a new painkiller on the market. Patrick says he is worried that there are not enough safeguards in place to prevent its misuse and possible overdose.

And he’s not stopping there.

“I have directed (the Department of Public Health) to take certain immediate actions and to give me further actionable recommendations within 60 days, to address this challenge and better protect the health of people suffering from addiction and the families and loved ones who suffer with them,” Patrick said.

As part of department staffers’ efforts to develop recommendations that are more than just window dressing, they should be sure to talk with people on the front lines in this battle, from all regions of the state. While it is all about opiate abuse, the scenarios and circumstances may differ radically from one part of the commonwealth to the next.

That means it may pay to tailor some of those recommendations to specific areas.

We agree with Sen. Edward Markey, who said, “This public health emergency requires urgent action at the local, state and federal levels. ... We need to bring together science, medicine, public health and law enforcement to comprehensively address this epidemic ...”

It’s all good, and the sentiments expressed are what is needed — but it will be actions, not words, that determine the outcome of this crisis.

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