By Pat Anson, Editor
Nearly half of the overdose deaths in New York City since July have been linked to fentanyl, according to a new report that adds to the growing body of evidence that illicit fentanyl is now driving the nation’s opioid epidemic – not prescription pain medication.
In an advisory sent to healthcare providers, New York’s health department said 47 percent of the city's confirmed overdose deaths since July 1 have involved fentanyl. That compares to 16% of overdoses involving fentanyl in all of 2015. So far this year, 725 people have died from drug overdoses in New York.
“Data suggest that the increased presence of fentanyl is driving the increase in overdose fatalities,” the alert said. “While fentanyl is most commonly found in combination with heroin-involved overdose deaths, fentanyl has also been identified in cocaine, benzodiazepine, and opioid analgesic-involved overdose deaths.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Because of its potency, healthcare providers are being warned that additional doses of naloxone – which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose – may be needed when fentanyl is involved.
Fentanyl is available legally by prescription in patches and lozenges to treat more severe types of acute and chronic pain, but illicitly manufactured fentanyl has become a scourge across the U.S. and Canada, where it is often mixed with heroin and cocaine or used to make counterfeit pain medication.
Unsuspecting buyers, including some pain patients who were unable to get opioid medication legally, often have no idea the drug they’re getting from a dealer or friend could contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.
In addition to New York City, several states in the Northeast and Midwest have reported that fentanyl is now involved in about half of their overdose deaths.
The sharp increase in fentanyl-related deaths has coincided with new restrictions on the prescribing of opioid pain medication. In the past year, the Drug Enforcement Administration has issued two public safety alerts about fentanyl, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has remained relatively quiet about the problem – focusing instead on opioid prescribing guidelines that were released in March of this year.
Those guidelines have led many doctors to reduce doses or stop prescribing opioids altogether, but they have failed to make a dent in the number of Americans dying from overdoses. There have also been anecdotal reports of a rising number of suicides by patients unable to get opioid medication.
“I know five people who have committed suicide from being denied pain medication by doctors after the CDC came out with their ridiculous statements of the ‘epidemic’ of prescription opioid use,” says Nina Stephens, a Colorado woman who suffers from chronic pelvic pain.
“Doctors are so afraid of getting in the middle of this epidemic mess with the FDA that they have decided to stop prescribing opioids to their patients, even those patients who are in desperate chronic pain. We are now treating our patients worse than dogs when it comes to pain.”
Stephens says she has to drive 4 hours each month to see a doctor who is still willing to prescribe opioids. A local pain management doctor just 20 minutes away said he would take Stephens off opioids and give her epidural injections instead, which she refused.
“I am truly afraid that soon I will have to drive even farther to find a doctor who will still be willing to prescribe pain pills to me each month or I will have to start looking at the black market. Maybe a veterinarian would be willing to start treating me? No wonder the suicide rate is going up so dramatically!” Stephens wrote in an email to PNN.
Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis
Counterfeit fentanyl pills started appearing in British Columbia about two years ago and have since spread throughout Canada. The fentanyl crisis is so severe a two-day conference was held in Calgary this week for healthcare providers and law enforcement. There were 153 deaths associated with fentanyl in Alberta province during the first six months of 2016.
Some attendees want Alberta to declare a public health emergency – as British Columbia did in April. But Alberta’s Minister of Justice says the current fentanyl situation doesn’t warrant such a declaration.
“None of those powers will assist us in this case but they do give the government a significant ability to violate civil liberties,” said Kathleen Ganley. “We think it’s important we use those powers that have significant impact on Albertans only where they would be helpful to us.”
On display at the conference was an illegal pill press seized by law enforcement that is capable of producing 6,000 fentanyl laced pills per hour.
“Some of the tablets we’ve been seizing in Calgary have ranged from 4.6 milligrams to 5.6 milligrams per tablet—which is very high obviously, considering a lethal dose is two milligrams,” said Calgary police Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta in Calgary Metro.