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Synthetic Opioids Are Now The Leading Cause Of Overdose Deaths, Accounting For 45 Percent Of Them

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As the opioid crisis worsens, a new study says that synthetic opioids are killing more people than prescription opioids. This is the first time that synthetics were considered to be the leading cause of overdose deaths.

What Did The Study Find?

A study published on May 1 in the journal JAMA analyzed overdose deaths in the United States from 2010 to 2016. Synthetic opioids, such as illicit fentanyl, contributed to 19,000 of the 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016. During the same year, about 17,000 overdose deaths involved prescription opioids and about 15,000 involved heroin.

The research also discovered that nearly 80 percent of synthetic overdose deaths involved alcohol or drugs.

Lead researcher Christopher Jones, who works for the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, called the study, "concerning."

"This is very consistent with data from the Drug Enforcement Administration that shows a great increase in the trafficking and availability of synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl over the past few years," Jones said

About 15 percent to 25 percent of overdose death certificates did not officially list which drugs were used in the incidents.

What Is Causing The Rise In Synthetic Overdoses?

Although most of the attention in the opioid crisis is focused on dealing with prescription drugs, the study shows that synthetics should be dealt with.

"Almost all of the increases in overdose deaths are attributed to illicitly manufactured fentanyl, not pharmaceutical fentanyl that has been misused or diverted, "Lindsay LaSalle of the Drug Policy Alliance told CNN. "The number of prescriptions for pharmaceutical fentanyl has remained relatively stable over the past decade, whereas seizures of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has skyrocketed."

Compared to prescription fentanyl, illicitly manufactured fentanyl is generally easier and quicker to produce. Most of it is made overseas in China before being sent to Mexico. The drugs typically enter the United States along with heroin.

In some cases, synthetics could get mixed with the heroin. The person taking the heroin may not even realize this.

The Solution For This Crisis

Now that the study has been published, it is important to readjust public awareness campaigns about the opioid crisis, so that focus is on synthetics. The public should know that synthetics are likely to be more dangerous than prescription drugs. The awareness campaign should also focus on ways to spot illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

The study concluded that there should be increased access to naloxone, which is the medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.

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