Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Up Sharply

"Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl -- and diverted prescription pain pills -- are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate," DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg said this week. "We face a public health crisis of historic proportions."

An alarming rash of overdose deaths in Philadelphia -- 35 deaths in just five days, the medical examiner reports, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer -- backs up the DEA's 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment released this week. It indicates fentanyl-related overdose deaths are rising fast, and the synthetic opioid is often added to heroin and sold as heroin to unsuspecting users.

DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg announced the findings Dec. 6. "Most notably, the 2016 NDTA continues to illuminate the nationwide opioid epidemic, which is fueling a growing heroin user population and resulting in a greater amount of overdoses. In 2014, approximately 129 people died every day as a result of drug poisoning and 61 percent (79) of them are pharmaceutical opioid or heroin related," according to the agency.

The opioid epidemic has been exacerbated by the national reemergence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid much more potent than heroin. "Fentanyl's strong opioid properties have made it an attractive drug of abuse. Illicit fentanyl, manufactured in foreign countries and then smuggled into the United States, is a rising factor in the current overdose epidemic. It is usually mixed into heroin products or pressed into counterfeit prescription pills, sometimes without the users' awareness, which often leads to overdose. The rise in overdose deaths also coincides with the arrival of carfentanil, a fentanyl-related compound, in America's illicit drug markets. Carfentanil is approximately 10,000 times more potent than morphine. The presence of carfentanil in illicit U.S. drug markets is cause for concern, as the relative strength of this drug could lead to an increase in overdoses and overdose-related deaths, even among opioid-tolerant users," DEA reported.

"Sadly, this report reconfirms that opioids such as heroin and fentanyl -- and diverted prescription pain pills -- are killing people in this country at a horrifying rate," said Rosenberg. "We face a public health crisis of historic proportions. Countering it requires a comprehensive approach that includes law enforcement, education, and treatment."

The assessment showed heroin overdose deaths are high across the United States, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, and that nationally overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014, with the most recent available data reporting 10,574 people in the United States died in 2014 from heroin overdoses.

Meanwhile, deaths from synthetic opioids rose 79 percent, from 3,097 in 2013 to 5,544 in 2014, and it is believed that fentanyl is contributing to most of this increase.

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