Beware: Heroin overdoses can end in death

Published 9:52 am Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

Illegal street drugs carry no warning label about complications from use. But if there were, heroin’s would read something like this: “Caution: Even small amounts can cause your body to forget to breathe, a terminal condition that may necessitate the need for a body bag, the services of a medical examiner and grief counseling for your family.”

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The past year has provided Minnesotans with sobering reminders of heroin’s dangers, with the most recent grim reports arriving over the weekend. Six people overdosed on heroin in a 12-hour period on Saturday, the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office reported. Two of them died. Authorities are also investigating heroin’s role in three medical emergencies that occurred at the Mall of America Friday night.

Law enforcement is sounding the alarm about a single source of heroin, one potentially contaminated or unexpectedly potent, that may have caused the overdose spike. Sadly, this kind of call has gone out before. In March, authorities in northern Minnesota pleaded for the public’s help in identifying users and dealers after seven heroin overdose deaths there.

That heroin and other drugs have a hold on too many Minnesotans is an undeniable reality. The state Department of Health (MDH) reports that drug overdose deaths rose 11 percent from 2014 to 2015. Prescription painkiller overdoses killed 216 people in 2015; heroin was the second-leading cause, claiming 114 Minnesotans.

A look at the data reveals a disconcerting reality. “Middle-aged adults have the highest numbers and rates of Minnesota’s drug overdose deaths,” the MDH report said. Drug abusers, in other words, often don’t fit the stereotype of hard-partying young adults.

The state has taken sensible measures as painkillers’ and heroin’s toll has risen. Increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse heroin overdoses, is one such step. A relatively new policy that encourages medical providers to consult a prescription database before prescribing painkillers also should help discourage patient doctor-shopping.

But often it’s family members or friends who are in the best position to save a life. Vigilance to the signs of abuse is critical. Even more important is the step that must follow: getting a loved one into medical care. Minnesota is home to some of the world’s leading addiction experts. They can help, but an abuser must become their patient first.