Fentanyl Involved in Nearly Half of All Opioid-Related Deaths

By Paul Gaita 05/04/18

New data reveals that fentanyl was also a factor in overdose deaths involving non-opioids, including cocaine, benzos and antidepressants.

Medics pushing hospital gurney to emergency room

The dangers of the synthetic opioid fentanyl are in constant rotation in the media, with stark reports about upticks in death rates and addiction due to combinations with cocaine and with methamphetamine, and seizures of massive amounts of the drug in cities and small towns across the U.S. occurring on an almost daily basis.

Now, new statistics have found that fentanyl was involved in nearly half of all opioid-related deaths in 2016. The report underscores the toll already wreaked by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, as well as its ever-growing potential to harm more lives in a myriad of ways.

The research letter, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), looked at mortality data culled from the National Vital Statistics and based on death certificates submitted by medical examiners and coroners between 2010 and 2016.

The letter's authors found that of the 42,249 deaths from opioid-related overdoses in 2016, 19,413 (45.9%) involved fentanyl. Prescription opioids were cited as a cause of death in 17,087 (40.4%) fatalities, while heroin was attributed to 15,469 (36.6%), although some of these deaths also involved multiple drugs.

Fentanyl was also a factor in overdose deaths involving non-opioids, including cocaine (40.3%), benzodiazepines (31%) and antidepressants (20.8%).

The data revealed that the impact of fentanyl had grown substantially since 2010, where 3,007 (14.3%) of overdose deaths were due to the drug, and even 2015, where out of 33,091 overdose deaths, fentanyl or another synthetic opioid was responsible for 9,580 (29%).

For the letter's authors, the data revealed what could be a fatal flaw in strategies to combat drug addiction and overdose deaths in the U.S.

"We have been very focused on the threat of prescription opioid deaths, and this paper shows us that we need to remain vigilant about the ever-shifting nature of the crisis," said Emily Einstein, a health science policy analyst at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and co-author of the JAMA study.

The authors also stressed that education and training could be key elements in the fight against fentanyl. Lack of awareness about the dangers of the drug and its increased presence in the black market drug supply pose serious risks for those with dependency issues.

As a result, "clinicians, first responders and lay persons likely to respond to an overdose should be trained on synthetic opioid risks and equipped with multiple doses of naloxone," the authors wrote, adding that access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) should be expanded to meet the increasing needs of users seeking help with dependency issues.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.