Deaths from Illegal Version Fentanyl

July 30, 2008

More than 1,000 people died over two years from an illegal version of the painkiller fentanyl, the government reported Thursday in its first national tally of those deaths.

The Dallas Morning News reported, the spike of overdoses seems to have ended, health officials said, pointing to law enforcement’s shutdown of a fentanyl operation in Mexico in 2006.

The wave of fentanyl overdoses first came to light in Chicago in 2005, and by 2006 more clusters were identified in Philadelphia, Detroit and other cities.

Hundreds of deaths from the drug were gradually reported, often episodically in local newspapers. Thursday’s report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the toll at 1,013 deaths from early April 2005 through late March 2007.

“This was really an epidemic,” said Dr. Steven Marcus, the executive director of New Jersey’s poison control center and a co-author of the new report.

Some deaths from illegal fentanyl still occur, but the worst of the outbreak seems to have ended after authorities shut down a fentanyl-making operation in Toluca, Mexico, in May 2006, said Dr. T. Stephen Jones, the study’s lead author.

“It almost disappeared entirely. The shutting down of the Toluca facility was probably a major factor,” said Jones, a consultant retired from the CDC.

The new report is being published this week in a CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Fentanyl is a prescription painkiller, often prescribed for cancer patients and administered through a patch. But it also is a powerful, euphoria-inducing narcotic, 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.

Illegally made versions of the drug are sold as a powder, often mixed with cocaine or heroin, and sometimes used as a heroin replacement. It’s possible some heroin addicts are unaware fentanyl is part of their injection, some experts say.

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