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As fentanyl deaths soar, health experts urge harm reduction

Health officials say a drug user involved in harm reduction is five times more likely to end up seeking treatment than other drug users.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Over the past decade, the use of fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, has increased dramatically. 

In 2021, 66% of all overdose deaths were related to fentanyl, according to the CDC. 

On Tuesday, the Drug Enforcement Administration declared the first ever Fentanyl Awareness Day. Over the past few months, local health officials have been sounding the alarm that anyone taking drugs they got anywhere other than a pharmacy should assume the drugs contain fentanyl — and protect themselves accordingly. 

Multnomah County's Harm Reduction Program offers fentanyl test strips for drug users to test their supply, in addition to other harm reduction strategies like needle exchanges. 

"Harm reduction has been shown to increase access to treatment up to five times. So for someone who's coming into a syringe exchange program regularly, they're five times more likely to end up in treatment than someone who is using and is not engaged in any kind of harm reduction," said Kelsi Junge, supervisor for Multnomah County's Harm Reduction Program. "What we do know is that having that support and nonjudgmental approach to engaging with people is beneficial to their health outcomes." 

Test strips allow users to test their drugs in advance to be sure they are not laced with fentanyl, which can be deadly even in tiny doses. It's not a perfect system, but Junge said it's a good place to start. The strips are typically not available in pharmacies but can be ordered online. 

RELATED: Oregon doctors, parents push awareness of rising fentanyl overdoses, deaths

Health experts say anyone using drugs or who knows someone who uses drugs should carry naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, which reverses an opioid overdose. It is available at pharmacies and harm reduction clinics, and some health insurance plans cover the cost. 

There is also an ongoing effort to get naloxone stocked in schools, after two teens in the Portland Public Schools district died earlier this year when they accidentally overdosed on counterfeit pills containing fentanyl. 

Health experts also urge everyone to be aware of the signs of an overdose: not breathing, a limp body and pale or blue skin, especially lips and fingertips. The person might lose consciousness, vomit or foam at the mouth. 

RELATED: 'Measure 110 has everything to do with it': Law enforcement says decriminalization has flooded Portland streets with drugs

If any of this happens, people should call 911, and if they have it, administer naloxone. Oregon also has a Good Samaritan law, which means people won't be prosecuted for seeking medical help for someone who is overdosing. 

"We understand that this country has taken an approach to criminalizing substance use. In the past 50 years, what we have seen is that the war on drugs and the approach of criminalization of substance use has not stopped the increase of substance use in our country. So we believe that taking the approach of empowering people to have tools to reduce their risks, as well as meeting them with respect and support, gives them the opportunity to explore avenues for decreasing their use, using safer and possibly getting into treatment so that they can stop substance use," Junge said. 

If you or someone you know needs help finding treatment for addiction, the Lines for Life Alcohol and Drug Helpline can help. The phone number is 800-923-4357 and help is available 24 hours a day.

RELATED: Recovering fentanyl addict speaks out about dangers of the drug

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