PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

The number of fatal drug overdoses in this state continues to decline. But can the same be said about the number of OD incidents?

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan presented a contributing factor for this promising decrease in the former at last week’s Lowell Opioid Task Force meeting.

Education and public awareness are two vital components in this war against substance abuse, which has exacted a heartbreaking toll, not only in Massachusetts, but across all 50 states.

Acting on anecdotal evidence relating to signs of imminent drug-induced deaths of loved ones at home, Ryan said her office publicized that information across Middlesex County. It seems many family members confused snoring with a gurgling sound that accompanies the final moments of a fatal drug overdose, which precluded them from performing a life-saving intervention.

Ryan believes that information played a significant role in last year’s nearly 20 percent decline in fatal overdoses when a non-drug-dependent family member was also at home. “… they’re hearing the sound and doing what we asked them to do,” Ryan said of family members. “They’re using Narcan, calling 911, and intervening to save their life.”

Lowell Fire Chief Jeff Winward also agreed that raising public awareness of this near-death reaction helps save lives. The chief also stressed the importance of having the drug overdose antidote Narcan on hand for use at home or in other situations when a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

This awareness campaign undoubtedly contributed to Middlesex County’s 12.2 percent decrease in fatal overdoses last year — 195, down from 222 in 2017. That 2017 figure was a 11.5 percent decrease from 2016’s total of 251.

Despite these encouraging numbers, the scourge of substance abuse persists,

Ryan indicated that 32 people have died from overdoses in Middlesex County so far this year — about three per week. The DA also said that February was an especially difficult month.

Also of concern is the fact that the median age of those who died of drug overdoses declined in 2017 — from 38.8 to 35 in men and 35 to 33 in women.

Ryan attributes the high percentage of fentanyl-related deaths for the age decreases, due to that potent synthetic opioid’s shorter shelf life.

There was also an alarming rise in OD deaths among women, which jumped from 18 to 26 percent.

As in other sanguine reports of fatal drug overdose declines, the common denominator for that success seems to be the increased ability to save lives, rather than the decline in the overall number of overdoses.

For that, we can thank the increased availability and use of Narcan — not only by first responders, but private citizens as well.

However, until we see an actual decline in the number of drug overdoses, we must assume we still haven’t turned the corner in neutralizing this plague, which has robbed far too many in this country of their family members and friends.