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50 suspected overdose deaths so far this year in Erie County

Fifty people have died from suspected overdoses a month into 2017 in Erie County.

That's the number as of the end of last week, said Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein at the county's quarterly meeting of the Opiate Epidemic Task Force on Monday. And that's on top of more than 320 confirmed and suspected deaths for last year.

County Executive Mark Poloncarz has also recently said that after a drop in the rate of opioid and heroin-related deaths in the middle of 2016, the overdose death rate has again begun climbing.

Parents of those who have died from drug overdoses say the numbers are disheartening, given all the hard work the county task force has undertaken over the past year.

"This is why this is such a tough time for our families," said Debra Smith, who chairs the task force's Family and Consumers Committee. "Even with this tremendous progress, we still see the death rate is going up."

Avi Israel, founder of Save the Michaels of the World, told task force members that the "horrendous" rate of deaths this year means everyone needs to work harder and faster to improve the system so more people can get help.

"For those of us who have lost kids, it really breaks our heart," said Israel, whose son, Michael, 20, became addicted and took his own life in 2011.

Opioid-related deaths continue to rise.

For 2016, the county has reported 324 confirmed or suspected opioid and heroin deaths, according to the Health Department. That compares with barely 100 deaths three years ago. The number of fatalities has grown sharply every year since then.

The opiate and heroin epidemic affects all ages and socioeconomic groups, though young, white men are increasingly the victims in these cases.

Seventy-seven percent of all opioid-related drug deaths involve men, and 82 percent of all victims are white, according to county Health Department data of confirmed cases for last year. Drug users between the ages of 20 and 40 are at the highest risk of death.

The opioid epidemic reaches all parts of Erie County. While 44 percent of victims lived in the city, 49 percent lived in the suburbs and rural areas, Health Department data shows. The remainder were homeless or lived at unknown addresses.

Fentanyl and fentanyl-combined drugs are causing a majority of fatalities, Burstein said Monday. Three out of every four fatalities involved a drug user taking a fentanyl-based drug or a combination of fentanyl and heroin, she said.

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