Synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for around 3,000 deaths in 2013—by 2018, they accounted for over 30,000.1 Fentanyl is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine, 50 times more potent than heroin. Breathing can stop after use of just two milligrams of fentanyl. That’s about as much as trace amounts of table salt. “Ten years ago,” write the authors of a recent RAND report on the future of fentanyl, “few would have predicted that illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids from overseas would sweep through parts of Appalachia, New England, and the Midwest.” Drug epidemics and outbreaks can be surprising, taking unexpected forms at unpredictable moments in uncharacteristic patterns. But the fentanyl crisis is different. It isn’t just distressingly surprising or one more deadly drug epidemic in a grueling, tragic history of new contagions. Its magnitude, intensity, and sharp variations dwarf previous epidemics with which experts and officials are familiar, and its challenges for public health are novel and, so far, unmanageable. The recent RAND report is a comprehensive overview of the fentanyl crisis’s origins, present status, and, most disturbingly, future.
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47,600 people died from drug overdoses involving opioids in 2017. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of fentanyl-induced fatal overdoses rose dramatically, accounting for a majority of overdose deaths. While preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control shows a marginal decline in fatal overdoses in 2018, from 70,237 to 68,557, it also reveals that fentanyl is still the primary cause of fatal overdoses.1 Naloxone is a non-opioid wonder drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. It is short-acting, and by temporarily reversing the effects of opioids, it gives a person with an opioid use disorder (OUD) a second chance—an opportunity to receive treatment. As a result of campaigns by, among others, the Surgeon General2 and the CDC to improve naloxone access, retail pharmacies increased naloxone dispensing from 2012 to 2018. Despite the increase in dispensation by pharmacies, only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 69 high-dose opioid prescriptions in 2018.3 In the old days, I remember patients saying that they felt stigmatized at the pharmacy when they heard, "Mr. Jones, your Elavil is ready." Stigma kept many depressed patients from filling prescriptions. But in this case, is the challenge both stigma and the lack of pharmacist or health care provider education?4 It is tough to pinpoint a cause explaining this data.
The CDC and Surgeon General encourage us to improve naloxone access at the local level, including through prescribing and pharmacy dispensing. Widespread distribution of naloxone is an essential component of the public health response to the opioid overdose epidemic. Unfortunately, the lowest rates of naloxone dispensing are in the areas with the highest opioid overdose rates. We are in the third phase of the opioid epidemic, with pain clinics’ overprescribing practices overtaken first by heroin and, more recently, by fentanyl. Individuals who overdose often overdose again, and many patients treated in addiction programs or health providers' offices through MAT often relapse.
For the treatment community, adverse outcomes and continued overdose deaths are, naturally, extremely upsetting. OUD treatment program employees frequently complain of burnout. High turnover in many programs is a major problem. Some are frustrated by recidivism rates, others because some patients are not offered MAT. Some patients cease their MAT course, and others drop out of treatment altogether. Yet experts have consistently agreed that while MAT, due to a lack of options, has not helped us combat cocaine or methamphetamine use disorders, it can be enormously helpful in managing OUD. A recent review, written by James Bell and John Strang, looks at the overall evidence on MAT and compares the relative benefits of different medications, helping to shed light on this critical public health issue. It is important to keep in mind, however, how contentiously and frequently some of our evidence is debated. We lack, for example, prospective, long-term, oncology-like, 5-year studies on the subject. MAT is debated—and so are standards measuring patient "outcomes." For a physician with an OUD, the relevant outcome standards may include a return to practice, 5-year sobriety, urine testing, and fitness for duty. In other cases, outcome standards may include coming to a treatment program, or following an MAT course, or simply not overdosing or dying.
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At the center of America’s deadly opioid epidemic, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl appears to be finding its way into illegal stimulants that are sold on the street, such as cocaine. Adulteration with fentanyl is considered a key reason why cocaine’s death toll is escalating. Cocaine and fentanyl are proving to be a lethal combination - cocaine-related death rates have increased according to national survey data. This has important emergency response and harm reduction implications as well—naloxone might reverse such overdoses if administered in time. A recent study by Nolan et. al. assessed the role of opioids, particularly fentanyl, in the increase in cocaine-involved overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 and found these substances to account for most of this increase.
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The opioid epidemic is a devastating public health crisis - over 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid, and this number has seen a dramatic uptick in the last decade. Opioid-related mortality emerged as a public health issue in the 1990s, which led to a common cultural understanding of the opioid epidemic as a rural issue (concentrated in the Midwest and Appalachia) caused by an increase in the prescription of oxycodone. Emerging research suggests that the narrative of the current crisis is not so simple - that in fact there are multiple co-occurring and distinct epidemics, characterized by different types of opioids as well as geographical footprint.