Painkillers containing illegally made fentanyl, a synthetic drug up to 100 times more potent than morphine, are responsible for a surge in overdose deaths in the United States, health authorities said.
Unprecedented in scope
Pop legend Prince, who died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl in April, is the latest high-profile victim of the addictive and often-counterfeit pills that are sweeping the nation.
A new report by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found "substantial increases in fatal synthetic opioid-involved overdoses, primarily driven by fentanyl-involved overdose deaths" in multiple states since 2013.
Read: Fentanyl: drug 50 times stronger than heroin causing havoc in US
"In contrast to the 2005-2007 fentanyl overdose outbreak, when deaths were confined to several states, the current epidemic is unprecedented in scope," the CDC said in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Fentanyl has been used for anaesthesia purposes since the 1960s, and today it is often prescribed for cancer pain and other chronic ailments.
Illegally made versions of it began to skyrocket in 2013. Traffickers often incorporate it in counterfeit pills or add it to heroin, which can kill the drug user by shutting down his or her respiratory system.
No change in prescription rates
Although fentanyl deaths are not reported separately in national data registries, CDC researchers were able to outline the scope of the problem by analysing synthetic-opioid deaths, along with law enforcement seizures of drug products that tested positive for fentanyl.
"Analyses also were conducted on data from 27 states with consistent death certificate reporting of the drugs involved in overdoses," said the study.
Researchers found that law enforcement seizures of products with fentanyl rose 426 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Read: Don’t overdose on your pain meds
Meanwhile, synthetic-opioid deaths increased by 79 percent during the same period, and researchers found that police fentanyl discoveries were "were strongly correlated with increases in synthetic opioid deaths".
There was no change in fentanyl prescription rates that could have explained this rise in use and deaths, the report said.
Threat to public health and safety
When researchers combined data from state reports, they estimated that over 1,000 more people died from fentanyl over the course of one year.
"Combining results across the state reports, total fentanyl deaths during 2013-2014 increased by 1,008, from 392 (2013) to 1,400 (2014)," said the CDC.
Eight states were most affected by the epidemic: Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and North Carolina.
Last year, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and CDC issued nationwide alerts calling illicitly manufactured fentanyl a threat to public health and safety.
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