More Potent Synthetic Opioids Increase Risk of Overdose and Death

Health
Published Monday, September 5, 2016

Hundreds of thousands of counterfeit prescription pills, some containing deadly amounts of fentanyl, have flooded the nation, according to a recent report released by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Fentanyl is an opioid pain reliever, a drug 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, available by prescription to treat severe pain. Counterfeit pills containing fentanyl mixed with heroin are being made illegally and are showing up across the U.S. at unprecedented levels. The sharp increase in the number of counterfeit pills available is alarming public health officials because they vary widely in how toxic and lethal they are. People buying these pills often do not know they contain fentanyl, which can increase the chance of overdose if those people also are misusing prescription opioids or benzodiazepines.

Nationally, synthetic opioid overdose deaths, including fentanyl-related deaths, increased 79 percent in 2013-2014, from 3,097 to 5,544. This sharp increase occurred during the same time illicit fentanyl became available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Colorado, overdoses have increased dramatically in recent years. The statewide rate of drug overdose deaths climbed 68 percent between 2002 and 2014, from 9.7 per 100,000 residents to 16.3 per 100,000 residents, according to the Colorado Health Institute. Colorado's 2014 rate is higher than the national average of 14.7 drug-related deaths per 100,000 residents.

U-47700 is an unscheduled synthetic opioid not studied for human use that has caused at least 17 overdoses and several deaths in the United States. There have been at least two fatal overdoses in Colorado involving U-47700 this year.  

 In an effort to reduce and prevent overdoses, Colorado recently passed Senate Bill 15-053, expanding access to the life-saving drug naloxone, which is used to reverse overdoses of certain prescription medications and heroin. The Harm Reduction Action Center provides a list of locations where naloxone can be purchased at www.stoptheclockcolorado.org.

International Overdose Awareness Day seeks to raise awareness of overdoses and reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths. There are many resources for families and friends who have lost loved ones to overdose and tools to help identify and respond to an overdose:

*www.colorado.gov/cdphe/rxdrug

*www.colorado.gov/cdphe/naloxoneorders

*takemedsseriously.org 

*www.overdoseday.com