Amid the continuing opioid abuse epidemic throughout the United States, a new report by government health regulators suggests that deaths associated with the use of illegally manufactured fentanyl drugs posing an emerging problem, with the state of Ohio being particularly hard hit.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report on September 1 in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, indicating that unintentional drug overdoses increased 98% from 2010 to 2015, with fentanyl overdoses increasing substantially in recent years.
Researchers found that Ohio in particular is “experiencing unprecedented loss of life” from drug overdoses, with illicitly manufactured fentanyl playing a major role.
Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid painkiller, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and is more powerful than heroin or prescription narcotic painkillers, like Vicodin.
In recent years, the overdose and abuse epidemic in the country was largely driven by prescription opioids. Recently, the president declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency as deaths attributed to narcotic painkillers, both prescription and illicit, have increased.
Research indicates fewer opioids are being prescribed for the first time in two decades. However, the crisis is not improving, as more people are turning to illicit street drugs. Other studies have indicated high potency opioid use increased in 2015, even though prescription opioid use declined.
As restrictions have increased in recent years, addicts began turning to heroin, then to heroin cut with fentanyl, and now to fentanyl and various iterations of fentanyl produced in secret labs, according to the findings of the new CDC report. The new fentanyl iterations have widely varying potencies and differing chemical compositions, which make the drugs difficult to detect.
From 2010 to 2015, unintentional drug overdose deaths in Ohio increased 98%, jumping from 1,544 that year to 3,050 deaths in 2015. Researchers indicate the epicenter of the epidemic in Ohio is Montgomery County, which saw a 40% increase of unintentional drug overdose deaths in only one year.
A National Institutes of Health study of fentanyl, conducted by the Wright State University and Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, identified 281 unintentional overdose deaths in 24 Ohio counties during January and February 2017.
Nearly 90% of all people who overdosed and died tested positive for fentanyl. About 50% of those tested positive for acryl fentanyl, 31% for uranyl fentanyl, and 8% for carfentanil, which is the most powerful form of the drug.
The study indicated pharmaceutical opioids were identified in 23% of cases and heroin in 6% of cases.
Fentanyl was responsible for nearly half of the increase in deaths involving heroin after 2013, which involved both heroin and fentanyl, according to the CDC. A 2016 CDC report also indicated fentanyl overdoses are driving the increase in opioid deaths across the U.S.
It’s especially easy for people to overdose on fentanyl, because it is so powerful. Often, someone may not know the heroin they purchased illegally was laced with some form of fentanyl. Many people who died from unintentional fentanyl overdoses tested positive for more than one type of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is so powerful, it can often make the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, completely ineffective. Sometimes the person overdosing may need even more naloxone for it to be effective against fentanyl, and often the extra dose is not available to combat the overdose.
Another study published this year indicated opioid overdoses are grossly underreported nationwide. To that end, researchers warned fentanyl should now be tested as part of the standard toxicology tests used in medical facilities, substance abuse treatment centers and criminal justice settings.