By Mallory Locklear
The US opioid epidemic may be getting even worse. Preliminary data suggests overdoses are soaring, while law enforcement officials have been warned about the dangers of fentanyl after it caused a police officer to collapse.
In a speech this week, the US Drug Enforcement Administration deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein noted preliminary data suggesting drug overdose deaths rose nearly 20 per cent in 2016, compared with the previous year. Official rates won’t be available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) until later this year, but data compiled by the New York Times suggests overdose deaths in the US probably exceeded 59,000 in 2016.
Rosenstein also urged people working in law enforcement to practise extreme caution when handling fentanyl, a synthetic opioid between 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The drug is prescribed for severe pain, but is increasingly being sold on the street, often mixed with heroine or other drugs.
Fentanyl is so powerful that it poses a threat to emergency service staff who encounter it as part of their job. “Inhaling just a few airborne particles could be fatal,” said Rosenstein. “Our police officers and first responders face this danger every day.”
Last month, a police officer in Ohio collapsed after merely brushing some fentanyl off his shirt. He survived, but required four doses of the overdose treatment Narcan. Law enforcement officers have also suffered exposures in New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut, Rosenstein said.
Police who may come into contact with fentanyl definitely need to take precautions, says Kim Janda, a chemistry researcher at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California. He says inhaling the drug is particularly dangerous, but it’s difficult to know when you’re dealing with fentanyl, as it is often in a powder form that looks like many other drugs.
According to the CDC, drug overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl increased by 72 per cent between 2014 and 2015. Fentanyl was taken by both Michael Jackson and Prince.
As well as contributing to thousands of deaths, opioid addiction is also causing many babies to be born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is caused by infants being exposed to addictive drugs while in the womb.
Carolyn Curtis is a physician in Huntington, West Virginia – the state which had the US’s highest overdose death rate in 2015. She estimates that 11 per cent of babies born in the hospital where she works have neonatal abstinence syndrome, and says carfentanil – a fentanyl-related opioid that is 10,000 times more potent than morphine – is becoming a growing problem in the area.
Yesterday, the US Food and Drug Administration requested that a commercial opioid, called Opana ER, be removed from the market, over concerns that the risks of the drug outweigh its benefits. This is the first time the FDA has taken action to remove a commercial opioid painkiller from sale due to the health consequences of its abuse.