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State health department reports increase in fatal drug overdoses

ANNAPOLIS — Fatal overdoses from drugs and alcohol rose 15 percent in Maryland from 2011 to 2012, driven by a 54 percent increase in heroin-related deaths, according to a report released by the state health department on Wednesday.

Heroin-related overdose deaths increased from 245 in 2011 to 378 last year, after having declined 36 percent between 2007 and 2011. Total alcohol- and drug-related deaths rose from 663 in 2011 to 761 in 2012. Deaths related to prescription drugs like oxycodone and methadone dropped 12 percent from 2011 and 2012, after increasing 18 percent between 2007 and 2011.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Maryland’s health secretary, said the drop in deaths from prescription drug overdoses likely is linked to the increase in heroin-related deaths as people switch from prescription drugs to heroin. Sharfstein also said Maryland is not unique in seeing the change in trends.

“The general feeling is that these probably are not unrelated trends,” Sharfstein said.

Last fall, the health department issued a public alert on the rise in heroin overdoses. The department has directed all Maryland counties and Baltimore to develop overdose response plans.

Several jurisdictions will hold meetings next month to discuss efforts to address alcohol and drug overdoses with law enforcement and public health authorities. Gov. Martin O’Malley is scheduled to attend one meeting in Elkton.

The health department report found that the increase in drug and alcohol overdose deaths was largest among people over the age of 55. Deaths in that age group increased by 40 percent.

The total number of deaths increased by 20 percent in central and southern Maryland and by nearly 30 percent in Baltimore city and Prince George’s County. The numbers remained stable from 2011 to 2012 in western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore.