By Richard Valdmanis
BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on Thursday declared a public health emergency over rising heroin and opioid addiction in the state, and announced measures to make overdose reversal medication more widely available.
The move comes as states across America report sharp increases in heroin use, a trend the Obama administration this month called an "urgent public health crisis."
"We have an epidemic of opiate abuse in Massachusetts, so we will treat it like the public health crisis it is," Patrick said in a statement.
The statement said at least 140 people have died of suspected heroin overdoses in the state recently, and that opiate overdoses had risen 90 percent between 2000 and 2012.
Patrick said his administration would permit first responders to carry and administer overdose reversal medication naloxone, also known as narcan, and will make the drug available in pharmacies for those "who fear a loved one might overdose."
He said he would also temporarily prohibit hydrocodone-only formulation pain killers in the state, which he said pose "a significant risk to individuals already addicted to opiates and to the public at large."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said this month that heroin overdoses had become "an urgent public health crisis," and reiterated the Obama administration's call for more law enforcement to train and equip personnel with naxolone.
Holder said 17 states and the District of Columbia have already amended their laws to increase access to naloxone, which is a blocking agent that can reverse the effects of an overdose and help restore breathing.
National attention on heroin abuse was riveted by the case of acclaimed actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead from an accidental drug overdose in his Manhattan apartment in February, a needle still in his arm. An autopsy determined he succumbed to acute intoxication from a mixture of heroin, cocaine and other drugs in his system.
Fatal heroin overdoses increased 45 percent nationwide from 2006 to 2010, with 3,038 such deaths reported that year, and the numbers are believed to still be on the rise, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The rising level of heroin use in recent years stems from a corresponding epidemic in the abuse of prescription opiate-based pain killers, such as oxycodone, DEA officials say.
Meanwhile, trafficking in heroin, the bulk of it smuggled into the United States from Mexico, has risen in conjunction with increasing demand.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Andre Grenon)