by Leslie Horton, Director of Yavapai County Community Health Services
Nationally, from 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people have died from a drug overdose. An alarming two-thirds of these deaths were caused by opioids, with synthetic opioids such as illicitly produced fentanyl recently becoming the No. 1 cause of accidental death in the U.S.
On average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose. In Yavapai County, we see an average of one overdose per week. In recent years, we have seen a drastic and steady rise in the number of overdose deaths throughout the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that fentanyl is the drug most commonly found in relation to these overdose deaths, surpassing heroin as the most dangerous drug in the country. As startling as these statistics are, we can be roughly certain to witness an increase in the future.
What Sets Fentanyl Apart
Opioids are most commonly referred to as prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, but also include illicit drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids including fentanyl. Opioids act on specific receptors in the brain; blocking pain signals and creating feelings of euphoria.
Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were created to simulate the effects created by naturally occurring opiates such as morphine. Due to the high cost and reduced availability of prescription opioids on the black market, drug cartels have begun to illicitly produce these powerful drugs.
Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is also cheaper and easier to make. By cutting fentanyl into other drugs the euphoric and addictive effects are significantly increased in a very cost effective way to the producer. This is where the current danger really begins to surface.
Why Fentanyl is So Dangerous
It has been known for a long time that there is a small demographic of people experienced with these substances who actively seek and recreationally use “hard” drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. They have a tolerance for the drugs and use them consciously.
The people most at risk from these highly potent substances are the casual or experimental drug users, especially our youth. Experimenting with illicit drugs of any type now carries possible lethal consequences. Illicit drugs ranging from pills to cocaine and even marijuana may contain varying amounts of fentanyl. These drugs are not created with the same precision as pharmaceuticals and the lethal amount of fentanyl can vary drastically from one pill to another. These irregularities are a recipe for disaster and too often death.
People who do not possess a high, built-up tolerance for strong opiates are referred to as “opioid naïve.” While this may be considered a good thing, it can leave a person vulnerable to an accidental overdose.
In light of the surging numbers in opioid overdoses, the public is urged to keep the lifesaving medicine naloxone on hand. Naloxone is a first-aid medicine used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
In the face of this glaring epidemic, it is important to remember there are steps we can take to protect our loved ones and ourselves. Educate our children and each other of the lurking dangers. Never take a substance unless it was specifically prescribed to you. And, carry naloxone.