An illegal version of the painkiller, fentanyl, caused a two-year wave of deaths killing more than 1,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC was attempting to uncover what led to a rash of fatal overdoses seen in several cities between 2005 and 2007 before there was a crackdown on the illegal drug.
The results appear in the Morbidity and Mortality weekly report of the CDC.
Fentanyl (Actiq, Sublimaze, and Duragesic) is often prescribed for cancer patients and people in severe pain who cannot tolerate morphine. While the drug is often prescribed in a lollipop or a patch, many of the illegal drug deaths resulted from injecting the painkiller.
The fatalities resembled those from street drugs such as heroin, and fentanyl was being substituted for heroin or being mixed with cocaine.
The drug can produce a range of effects from euphoria, to nausea, coma, and death.
The first cluster of deaths were seen in Camden, N.J.. Chicago had the most deaths with 349, followed by Detroit (230). Other deaths were reported in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Delaware, according to the CDC.
While many deaths were likely unreported, the official tally is at least 1,013 deaths due to the illegal fentanyl.
The report chronicles finding many drug-users with the needle still in their arm, dying before even completing injecting the powerful drug.
Author of the CDC report, Dr. Stephen Jones tells Reuters, "I think this is an extraordinary episode of fatal drug overdoses. But it's got to be recognized as part of the bigger problem of the increasing numbers of drug overdose deaths in the United States."
The U.S. shut down a fentanyl-producing operation in Toluca, Mexico in May 2006. That version of the fentanyl reportedly was sent to Chicago and Detroit and in June the death rate spiked. Most who died were in the 45 to 54 age group, according to the report.
The report says that the internet has instructions on how to make the drug, which requires “minimal technical knowledge.”
One gram of pure fentanyl can equal about 7,000 doses on the street where the drug is also known as Apache, China white, China girl, friend, dance fever and jackpot, among other names.
In April 2007, DEA began regulating access to the basic ingredients used to make nonpharmaceutical fentanyl after that there was a dramatic decline in deaths.
Unintentional drug poisoning deaths from painkillers doubled to more than 22,000 from 1999 to 2005, according to the CDC. #