The latest state Department of Public Health data on the causes of fatal drug overdoses give little comfort to those doing their best to stem this epidemic.

At best, the latest statistics impart a mixed message in the struggle to reduce drug dependency and save lives.

The most disturbing information contained in the DPH report centers on the increasing presence of fentanyl in deaths from various forms of drug overdoses. It reminds us that drug trafficking acts like a virulent form of cancer that can adapt to every treatment administered to halt its progress.

That can be seen in the rising overdose rates involving cocaine laced with fentanyl. While the percentage of heroin present in opioid-related deaths since 2014 has declined, the rates for fentanyl and cocaine have been trending upward, the report said.

That's confirmed in data that indicate more people now are dying after overdosing on cocaine laced with fentanyl than heroin mixed with fentanyl.

According to the DPH's quarterly report, the presence of fentanyl in opioid related overdose deaths statewide reached an all-time high in 2017, with traces of the potent opioid found in 90 percent of such deaths; that alarming rate remained at 90 percent through the first quarter of this year.

The figure represents a more than 100 percent increase since 2014, when fentanyl was present in 40 percent of overdose deaths, according to the DPH quarterly report.


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And as for the ascendancy of cocaine as the fentanyl mixture of choice, the report showed that in the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43 percent) was present in more opioid-related deaths than heroin or likely heroin (34 percent).

That has us wondering whether there's a link between this uptick in cocaine-fentanyl cocktails and the spike in opioid-related incidents experienced by the area's Emergency Medical Services community in July.

In that month, Trinity EMS, which serves 13 communities in northern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire, including Lowell, received 99 opioid-related calls in Lowell alone -- 10 more than the next highest month since the company started tracking these numbers in January 2013.

Of those, 51 were Priority 1 calls, meaning without treatment, these patients would have likely died.

Despite these unsettling figures, the report did contain some encouraging news.

The 49 Lowell residents who died of opioid-related overdoses last year represent a 27 percent drop over 2016.

And overall, the number of opioid-related deaths continue to decline gradually, according to the report. Statewide, 1,909 opioid-related deaths occurred in 2017, compared to 2,089 the year before.

But running numbers can't begin to describe the terrible toll this scourge has taken on the countless families who have lost a loved one or know of someone who's experienced that heart-wrenching fate.

However, these figures do represent a sobering reality check, and show that for all the positive anti-drug initiatives supported by Gov. Charlie Baker, the Legislature, law enforcement, and medical community, the end of this anti-drug fight is nowhere in sight.