Fentantyl deaths increase over 100% in WV, researchers explain why

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WDTV) -- A new study by West Virginia University researchers says fentanyl deaths have increased dramatically in the state, even with prescription-related opioid deaths declining.

In a recent study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that fentanyl-related deaths have risen 122% over the past 2 years.

Researchers analyzed the number of fentanyl deaths from 2005 to 2017 and found that deaths rose by 122% between 2015 and 2017. Prescription opioid-related deaths decreased by 75% in those two years.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin. According to Gordon Smith, an epidemiologist with the WVU School of Public Health and researcher on the study, the increase in statewide fentanyl use is partly due to illegal fentanyl imports from China.

"Up until then, people who were shifting from legal prescription drugs to illegal drugs were shifting to heroin and opioids coming in from Mexico and other places," Gordon said, "But then people started manufacturing fentanyl in China, setting up clandestine labs, staying one step ahead of drug-enforcement agencies.”

“The big thing about fentanyl—and now carfentanil, a fentanyl analog that’s a thousand times stronger than morphine and heroin—is that it’s very easy to export. Instead of having to smuggle truckloads of heroin in, someone can send small packages through the mail," he added.

Other contributing factors to the increase are just how potent fentanyl is and deceptive selling practices surrounding it. Sellers have disguised fentanyl as counterfeit prescriptions and mixed it into heroin. Researchers say mistakingly using the heroin-fentanyl mix could be fatal.

According to researchers, improper mixing of the drug can also lead to different amounts of the drug per spoonful, even within the same batch.

While the increase in fentanyl deaths has increased across the United States, West Virginia leads the nation in fentanyl-related deaths and has the highest per capita rate of overdose deaths.

However, researchers say they are able to spread information to fight back against the epidemic thanks to the state medical examiners. The offices pinpoint the drug used in every overdose death that they see.

The data collected in the autopsies contribute to knowing where more resources are needed to fight certain drugs, as well as the composition of new drugs entering an area.

“One of the proven ways to reduce overdoses is to decrease the number of people who are addicted and using. But with fentanyl, you could halve the number of addicts in West Virginia, and the overdose rate could still go up because the strength of the drug coming in is so much stronger and can vary widely from one day to the next,” said Smith. “This is an absolute quandary.”

Smith suggests increasing the amount of naloxone given to communities, as multiple doses may be needed to fight the toxicity of certain drugs.

For more information about the study, you can visit the Related Link (to the right on desktop, below on mobile).