Overdose deaths from the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl are up nearly 70 percent during the first six months of this year, according to health officials.
Deaths from overdoses attributed to the powerful synthetic narcotic fentanyl are up nearly 70 percent in Washington during the first half of this year, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The data shows that during the first six months of 2018, 81 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in Washington, up from 2017 when 48 people died from abusing the drug during that same six-month period.
In 2017, the CDC said 70,237 people died from drug overdoses nationally. Of those, 28,466 overdose deaths — or roughly 40 percent — involved fentanyl or other similar synthetics. The CDC said fentanyl-related deaths in 2017 were up 45 percent over 2016.
Kathy Lofy, a doctor and state health officer with the Washington state Department of Health, said it is important for people who use opioids and heroin to be aware that even a minuscule amount of fentanyl can kill them. “You can’t smell it. You can’t tell which illicit drugs it’s in and which it isn’t in,” she said.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic drug, many times more potent than heroin, used by health-care professionals in controlled environments to treat severe pain. Lofy said it doesn’t appear the rise of fentanyl deaths in Washington is from prescription drugs, but it is illicitly manufactured fentanyl that is being included in pills and heroin sold on the streets.
In King County, 51 people died from fentanyl overdoses through the end of November, which easily tops the 2017 total of 33 fentanyl-related deaths, said Dr. Jeffery Duchin, health officer at Public Health – Seattle & King County. He said Public Health is working with emergency rooms and inpatient wards across the county to get people into treatment while they are at the hospital.
Last week China, a major source of illicit fentanyl, said it would crack down on the export of the opioid. This is a welcome step, Lofy said, but only part of the solution.
“There is a supply side and a demand side to the issue,” she said. “I think it is important that we work on both. We really have to work on decreasing the demand and getting more people with substance-use disorder into treatment.”
Fentanyl is killing people because it is significantly more powerful than most other opioids. The synthetic drug is 30 to 50 times stronger than pure heroin. The Drug Enforcement Agency says that a dose as small as 0.25 mg can kill, according to the state department of health.
By publicizing the increase in deaths this year over last, Lofy said the hope is to raise awareness among drug users. It is an opportunity for public-health officials to raise awareness among drug users. In 2015 the Department of Health created an opioid response plan with four primary goals: Prevent misuse and abuse; expand treatment for opioid-use disorder; decrease morbidity and mortality in opioid users and use data to monitor trends.
The Department of Health provides a number of resources for people wanting and needing help. In addition to seeking addiction treatment, the state has created a map showing where people can find clinics and health-care providers dispensing methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine, which are used to reduce overdoses and aid recovery. Public Health is also working to increase the number of buprenorphine providers. The number of providers increased from about 50 last year to 90 this year.
Reaching people addicted to drugs can be difficult. Lofy said needle-exchange programs have provided an opportunity to reach addicts and steer them toward treatment.
Caleb Banta-Green, the principal research scientist at the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) at the University of Washington, said he is excited that the state is providing information about where to find treatment drugs like burenophine. He said the discussion about how to treat the opioid problem has changed for the better in just the past year.
“The harm-reduction message is important,” he said.