The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that illicit synthetic fentanyl has led to a spike in unintended overdoses.
A health warning on Wednesday from the Atlanta-based government agency said synthetic fentanyl is so potent that people often overdose by mistake. It also warned about “fentanyl analogs,” which are chemical compounds similar to fentanyl that have also been hitting the market. The most dangerous of these is currently carfentanil, the agency said.
This warning is considered an update, the CDC said, to its earlier advisory on Oct. 26, 2015, which detailed the dangers of synthetic fentanyl, which can be a hundred times more potent than heroin, with which it is often mixed by drug dealers, leading to overdoses and deaths.
Already the Centers for Disease Control updated the original warning in August 2016 with a description of counterfeit pills that contain either fentanyl or analogs to it. Those synthetic drugs are either mixed with heroin or even substituted for it when distributed to addicts.
Mixing these analogs and powerful synthetic drugs is particularly troublesome, the CDC warned, saying that such “poly-drug combinations” have led to an increase in overdose deaths in multiple U.S. states. Non-opioid drugs, such as cocaine, are now often mixed with fentanyl or analogs, leading to unknown and potentially fatal chemical consequences in the human body.
Because the way such drugs are made, mixed and taken is “continuously evolving,” the alert said, health authorities and first responders have to keep up on the latest changes.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration regularly tests confiscated drugs in an attempt to gain more knowledge about how they are being made and used in combination.
Carfentanil was found much more often in samples tested in 2017 than in 2016. In the first six months of 2017, the DEA counted 2,268 carfentanil samples, up from 1,251 for the entire previous year.
Two states, Ohio and Florida, were particularly hard hit by carfentanil in 2016, with 900 reports from Ohio and 100 from Florida. Those numbers are expected to increase as reports from 2017 are counted.
Other analogs on the rise include 3-methylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and acrylfentanyl.
A new opioid called U-47700 appeared in 2016 and went from 533 reports that year to 1,087 in the first half of 2017. The drug has been temporarily put on the list of schedule I substances to enable better enforcement.
As these new drugs and varieties appear, it takes time for agencies and authorities to learn about them and come to grips with how to combat and treat them. During that lag time, overdose deaths from the new drugs go up, as they have been for these new analogs.
The rate of deaths from such synthetic opioids rose from 3.1 per 100,000 people in the United States in 2015 to 6.2 the very next year.
In the year ended June 2017, ten states studied by the CDC reported that more than half their overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Five of those ten states said at least 10 percent of their overdose deaths involved new analog drugs.