ATLANTA — A powerful monster may be coming to rip through your hospital’s community and you must be ready for it.
That beast has already visited Massachusetts and countless other states and the havoc it's wreaking likely will grow worse, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said during the opening keynote Tuesday here at the National Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit.
He was speaking of the powerful illicitly produced form of the drug fentanyl, which is often being mixed with or sold as heroin, and sometimes as counterfeit pills, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of fentanyl encounters in the U.S. has surged in recent years, more than doubling from 2014 to 2015 to nearly 14,000. During that same period, deaths from synthetic opiods, a category that includes fentanyl, have climbed 73 percent to more than 9,500. Singer Prince, for one, died last year from the drug, which is sometimes referred to as “White China.”
Markey called his colleague on the Hill, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky., 5th District), “Paul Revere” for being one of the first to try to warn others about the burgeoning epidemic of death and despair caused by heron and pain pills.
And Markey believes this is his own such moment with respect to the drug. “Fentanyl is coming and it is coming like a storm toward our country,” he said Tuesday.
Preliminary numbers show that about 2,000 individuals died in Massachusetts last year from opioids, Markey said. And about three quarters of those overdose victims, or 1,500 people, had fentanyl in their blood, compared with 900 in 2015. The commonwealth represents about 2 percent of the country’s population and, if you extrapolated that number at the same rate to the rest of the U.S., about 75,000 people would have died last year. “That’s [approaching] a Vietnam War and a half from fentanyl. That’s how fast this is moving.”
Fentanyl is extremely potent, and often users are getting it mixed with cocaine or marijuana, and with no idea of its potency. Just a few salt-sized grains can kill an adult, and often law enforcement personnel have to be careful about using drug-sniffing dogs near the substance because of its strength. And it’s because of that potency that the availability of the drug is surging, Markey said, as drug dealers can sell a kilo of heroin for about $80,000 but the same amount of fentanyl for more than $1 million.
Markey urged health care leaders and other stakeholders in the opioid fight to put pressure on their lawmakers to ensure that this is a priority issue in their legislative agendas.
Similarly, health care providers must keep a keen eye toward their patients and warn them of the dangers of fentanyl. During a separate session today at the summit, which is organized by the Operation UNITE advocacy group, Lawrence Scholl, an epidemic intelligence service officer in the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, division of unintentional injury prevention, revealed some of the insights he gathered from an epidemiological investigation he did tied to the spread of fentanyl in Ohio.
In 2014, the state saw a 500 percent increase in fentanyl-related unintentional ODs. The vast majority were illicitly manufactured, according to electronic prescribing data. Yet, more than half of those who died in 2014 filled at least one prescription in the six months preceding their deaths, and 23 percent filled at least one opioid prescription. That means there were opportunities for education and early intervention, he believes, before those victims were lost.
Health care leaders must use such proactivity and tenacity if they are going to reverse these surging numbers, Markey said earlier in the day.
“This is the greatest public health crisis of our generation. There is no second place. This is the crisis that we all have to make our commitment to deal with it in a way that we have never dealt with another issue in our lives,” Markey said.