Rise of fentanyl: Seen in half of deadly overdoses in state

New York City health officials this month said provisional 2017 data suggests fentanyl is present in more than one-third of overdose deaths involving cocaine without heroin, and warned that recreational cocaine users are at "exceptionally high risk" of overdose. In 2015 that number jumped to 138 deaths. It can be 50 to 100 times as potent as morphine.

The initial data points to large increases in drug overdose deaths in states along the East Coast, particularly Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.

"The spread of fentanyl means that any encounter a law enforcement officer has with an unidentified white powder could be fatal", said Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at a DEA event. Opioids are now represented in 38 percent of all requests for drug treatment in the European Union, the center's report said, adding: "In both Europe and North America, the recent emergence of highly potent new synthetic opioids, mostly fentanyl derivatives, is causing considerable concern". In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control reports that 52,404 people died from drug-related causes.

"Just two milligrams - the equivalent of a few grains of table salt, an amount that can fit on the tip of your finger - can be lethal", Rosenstein said.

Interestingly, nosologists, who code the cause of deaths for official records, usually do not consider a death by alcohol to be a drug overdose even though alcohol is technically a drug.

The extremely rapid rise in opioid problems is not unique to the U.S. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, in Lisbon, reported Tuesday that risky synthetic compounds mimicking the effects of heroin or morphine are a growing health threat in the EU.

West Virginia has by far the highest rate of death from opioid overdoses in the country: 41.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, a jump of almost 17 from the prior year.

Since 1999, sales of prescription opioids in the United States have quadrupled. For perspective, three years earlier, there were less than a hundred drug overdose deaths a year in the town.

About 1 in 10 babies born in Huntington, West Virginia's main hospital are born addicted to opioids - suffering from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) - 13 times the national rate.

  • Joanne Flowers