Fentanyl Linked to Over Half of Opioid Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that illicit fentanyl – not prescription pain medication -- was involved in over half of the recent opioid overdoses in ten states.

The report underscores the changing nature of the nation’s overdose crisis and how public health officials have been slow to respond to the growing role of fentanyl and other illegal opioids – focusing instead on limiting access to opioid medication.

CDC researchers say fentanyl or its chemical cousins (known as fentanyl analogs) were detected in 2,903 of 5,152 opioid overdoses (56.3%) during the last six months of 2016.

Their report on overdoses in ten states (Oklahoma, New Mexico, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Ohio, Maine, Missouri, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire) is the first to use toxicological and death scene evidence to characterize opioid overdoses, a method that is far more accurate than other CDC reports that rely on death certificate codes.

source: Centers for disease control and prevention

source: Centers for disease control and prevention

Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Missouri reported the highest percentages of deaths involving fentanyl (60-90%), while New Mexico and Oklahoma had the lowest (15-25%). Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is legally prescribed to treat severe pain. The vast majority of the deaths, however, involve illicit fentanyl that has flooded the black market in recent years. 

“This analysis of opioid overdose deaths in 10 states participating in the ESOOS (Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance) program found that illicitly manufactured fentanyl is a key factor driving opioid overdose deaths and that fentanyl analogs are increasingly contributing to a complex illicit opioid market with significant public health implications,” the researchers reported.

“Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is now a major driver of opioid overdose deaths in multiple states, with a variety of fentanyl analogs increasingly involved, if not solely implicated, in these deaths. This finding raises concern that in the near future, fentanyl analog overdose deaths might mirror the rapidly rising trajectory of fentanyl overdose deaths that began in 2013 and become a major factor in opioid overdose deaths.”

The CDC recently expanded the ESOOS program to 32 states and the District of Columbia. Additional funding was also provided to improve toxicology testing for a wider range of fentanyl analogs such as carfentanil, which is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

The new CDC report did not detail how many of the overdose deaths involved prescription opioids. A recent report from Massachusetts  estimated that prescription opioids were involved in only about 15% of overdoses in that state, ranking well behind cocaine, benzodiazepines, heroin and fentanyl.

source: massachusetts department of public health

source: massachusetts department of public health

Although opioid prescribing has been in decline for years, public health efforts remain focused on limiting access to pain medication. As PNN has reported, the CDC recently launched a new advertising campaign that focuses exclusively on raising awareness about the risks of prescription opioids, while ignoring the role of fentanyl and heroin in the overdose crisis.

The CDC’s Rx Awareness campaign will initially run in four states -- including Massachusetts and Ohio, two of the states where fentanyl overdoses vastly outnumber those involving pain medication.