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Federal drug enforcement agents have issued an alert, calling the powerful painkiller fentanyl a “threat to health and public safety.”
The fentanyl warning was issued last week by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), in a rare move initiated in response to a growing number of overdoses nationwide.
The DEA statement was issued by its El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) to all U.S. law enforcement agencies nationwide, indicating that fentanyl is not only being misused and abused on its own, but has also found its way as a frequent fixture in heroin.
“Drug incidents and overdoses related to fentanyl are occurring at an alarming rate throughout the United States and represent a significant threat to public health and safety,” DEA Administrator Michele M. Leonhart said in a press release. “Often laced in heroin, fentanyl and fentanyl analogues produced in illicit clandestine labs are up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and 30-50 times more powerful than heroin. Fentanyl is extremely dangerous to law enforcement and anyone else who may come into contact with it.”
According to the DEA, there have been a significant number of fentanyl-related incidents, including overdose and seizure of illicit fentanyl products throughout 2014. The areas of most concern appear to be the northeast and California. It is part of a worldwide trend over the last two years, which has led to significant fentanyl abuse in Russia, the Ukraine, Sweden, Denmark and Mexico, with illegal drug supply chains leading to Germany, Japan and China.
In June, the CDC issued a warning of a spike in fentanyl overdoses in Rhode Island as the drug was being more frequently used in the production of heroin. Pennsylvania has recorded more than 200 fentanyl deaths over the past 15 months, and New Jersey saw 80 deaths in the first six months of 2014.
The DEA warning indicates that one recent raid in California netted 12 kilograms of illegal fentanyl. A dose as small as 0.25 mg is enough to be fatal.
Fentanyl Health Risks
Fentanyl is a powerful opioid medication, which is legally prescribed as a pain killer administered intravenously, through the use of a patch or on a lollipop-like stick. However, even when prescribed by a doctor, the medication has been linked to a substantial number of overdoses and deaths in recent years.
The fentanyl patch, which was originally introduced under the brand name Duragesic pain patch, is designed to slowly release the drug through the skin in a regulated manner. However, all versions of the patch have been plagued by a number of manufacturing problems, where the powerful fentanyl gel has leaked out of the patch, posing a serious risk of fentanyl overdose.
More than a dozen different fentanyl patch recalls have been issued by manufacturers of the Duragesic patch and generic equivalents over the past decade, leading many critics to question whether the pain patch can be safely manufactured. If the fentanyl gel leaks out due to a manufacturing defect or is delivered through the skin at a faster rate than intended, it can cause potentially fatal injury for the user or caregivers applying the patch.
The FDA has also issued several safety warnings about risks associated with fentanyl patches. In September 2013, the FDA issued a drug safety communication to remind users that the fentanyl patch can remain deadly even after it is discarded, warning users and caregivers to exercise care with proper disposal.
Johnson & Johnson and the manufacturers of generic equivalents have faced a number of fentanyl patch lawsuits filed on behalf of individuals who have died or suffered catastrophic injury caused by fentanyl overdose.
A handful of Duragesic patch lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and their Janssen Pharmaceuticals subsidiary have gone to trial and resulted in multi-million dollar damage awards. In addition, a number of settlements involving fentanyl patch overdoses have been reported.