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The highest death toll in a decade: Nearly 380 people died from overdoses in 2017

Despite public health efforts, drug overdoses are a growing cause of death in Western Washington.

Last year, 379 lives were lost to overdose in King County. On Thursday, crowds gathered at Westlake Park to remember them, in honor of International Overdose Awareness Day.

“So often it defines somebody, it takes away everything else that you are,” said Marlys McConnell.

McConnell lost her son, Andrew, to an accidental heroin overdose in January of 2015.

People gathered among a sea of balloons, each representing a life, to listen to speakers share their experiences with addiction and loss.

Nearly 200 people have died in King County this year so far from overdoses. In 2017, nearly 380 people died of overdoses — a 10-year record in the county.

On International Overdose Prevention Awareness day, officials are calling attention to the problem.

Most overdoses are accidental, according to University of Washington drug abuse scientist Caleb Banta-Green.

He says seven out of every 10 overdose deaths have to do with opioids such as pain killers and heroin.

Banta-Green recommends people learn how to respond if a friend or family member overdoses on opioids.

Symptoms may include a person turning blue or snoring unusually, Banta-Green said. At that point, you'll need to call 911, do rescue breathing, or administer naloxone.

Naloxone, or Narcan, is an overdose reversal drug.

Public health officials have launched efforts to make Narcan easier to access. They have also installed more drug disposal boxes and support needle exchange programs to prevent infections.

But the prevention work is not keeping pace with the rise in overdoses, Banta-Green said.

Drug withdrawal medications like methadone are too difficult for many people to access, Banta-Green said, especially if they are homeless or without insurance coverage.

Banta-Green's research shows that methadone-type medications are some of the most effective long-term strategies to dealing with addiction. He said it’s important people drop misunderstandings and stereotypes, and that methadone become more accessible.

There's a related prevention idea underway in King County: plans to open supervised drug injection sites. But the future for those plans remains unclear. The federal government recently threatened to crack down on cities with safe injection sites, and county officials have not said how they will proceed.

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