By Pat Anson, Editor
An article published online in the Annals of Emergency Medicine shows just how easy it is for someone to be fooled – and nearly killed – by counterfeit pain medication.
It tells the story of an unnamed 41-year old California woman who treats her chronic back pain with regular doses of Norco, a prescription medication that combines acetaminophen and hydrocodone.
She was one of dozens of people who died or were hospitalized in northern California after ingesting counterfeit Norco bought on the street that was laced with illicit fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 stronger than morphine.
"Street Norco is almost indistinguishable from brand-name Norco in appearance but can be lethal," said lead author Patil Armenian, MD, of the University of California San Francisco-Fresno.
"This new street drug's toxicity led to an unexpected cluster of fentanyl deaths in California this spring. These deaths in our area combined with an emergency patient who was concerned about pill appearance and exceedingly sleepy after her usual dose of medication led to our investigation."
The woman in question suffers chronic pain from a herniated disc and normally buys the Norco illicitly, 2 to 3 tablets at a time. The article does not explain why she buys them off the street.
The woman felt sleepy and became unconscious within 30 minutes of taking three of the counterfeit tablets. She next remembered waking up in a hospital emergency room. She told hospital staff the pills had the markings of Norco, but were beige in color instead of the usual white.
A blood serum analysis revealed the woman had significant amounts of fentanyl and U-47700, another type of synthetic opioid. Neither drug is an ingredient in brand-name Norco.
“Toxic effects of these compounds are similar to those of other opioids, namely, miosis, respiratory depression, coma, and possible death. To our knowledge, this is the first reported opioid toxidrome case with confirmed serum concentration of U-47700,” said Armenian, adding that the woman was discharged from the hospital and has completely recovered.
“This case highlights that fentanyl-laced Norco is spreading to other regions and may contain psychoactive ingredients other than fentanyl, such as U-47700, prompting emergency providers to remain vigilant in their care.”
As Pain News Network has reported, the Drug Enforcement Administration is warning the U.S. faces an unprecedented “fentanyl crisis” that is growing worse as drug dealers ramp up production of counterfeit medication. Dozens of Americans have died this year after ingesting counterfeit versions of oxycodone, Norco and Xanax that are virtually indistinguishable from the real medications. Even a few milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal.
Fentanyl is legally prescribed in patches and lozenges to treat severe chronic pain, but the DEA said “hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription drugs” laced with illicit fentanyl are on the black market. The agency predicts more fake pills will be manufactured because of heavy demand and the “enormous profit potential” of fake medication.
Canada’s Fentanyl Crisis
Canada – which has been dealing with its own fentanyl crisis – may provide a preview of what’s in store for the U.S. Overdose deaths from fentanyl have reached such an urgent level that British Columbia Premier Christy Clark asked the federal government last week to restrict access to pill presses and to start screening “all small packages” entering the province for fentanyl.
Earlier this year British Columbia declared a public health emergency and adopted new opioid prescribing guidelines that are even more stringent than those released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the CDC’s guidelines are voluntary and intended only for primary care physicians, British Columbia’s guidelines are legally enforceable for all opioid prescribers because they set a “minimum standard of professional behaviour and ethical conduct.” The guidelines state that opioids should not be prescribed to treat headaches, fibromyalgia and low back pain.
In Ontario, the backlash against opioids has reached a point that palliative care doctors are worried they will no longer be able to give high doses to their patients – many of whom are dying from cancer and other chronic illnesses. Ontario’s Ministry of Health said public health plans next year would stop paying for high doses of hydromorphone, morphine and fentanyl patches.
“Our patients under palliative care deserve better than this,” Stephen Singh, MD, director of the Canadian Society of Palliative Care Physicians, told The Globe and Mail, adding that he was “appalled” by the government’s decision.