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Massive outbreak of overdoes fueled by heroin, fentanyl sweep U.S.

Fatal opioid overdoses have become an epidemic in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other parts of the Rust Belt during the past several months.

The painkiller fentanyl has caused the most deaths. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl is 25 to 50 times more powerful than heroin and 50 to 100 times more so than morphine. Habits are often the result of a post-surgery prescription to the highly addictive opioid.

Dealers also cut fentanyl with heroin in order to increase their product’s potency and boost profits. In addition to multiplying the number of addictions, this has caused overdoses among victims who were unaware of the presence of the more powerful drug in their “heroin.” Recently, investigators have found marijuana laced with fentanyl as well, and they report that it has even been taken straight.

Carfentanil, an even more powerful drug that is traditionally used to sedate large animals, has appeared and begun to claim casualties as well.

As a result of all of this, the northeastern U.S. has seen a very recent explosion in fatal overdoses. In Columbus, Ohio, and the surrounding area, fentanyl has already been responsible for at least 55 overdoses in 2017, or about one per day. It caused just over twice that number of deaths in that area during the whole of the previous year. This was already significantly up from 2007, when there were just four fentanyl-related deaths in the state of Ohio. Today, local morgues are reporting that they have needed to employ “mass casualty trailers” because of the outbreak.

Among fentanyl recent victims is Prince, who passed away of an accidental overdose in April 2016.

Some, like Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune, blame the overdoses on law enforcement’s failure to treat opioid users for their addictions. Because of severe federal and state regulations, medication-assisted treatment is limited to about 12 percent of opioid-dependent individuals. Prison inmates with heroin addictions often pass away from overdoses upon release, because their tolerance diminishes while they are imprisoned without treatment. “The criminalization of opioid use often has fatal consequences,” Chapman writes.

Ohio officials are asking for greater collaboration among area public health agencies and are seeking to establish community outreach and education programs in an effort to decrease the number of new addictions in the future. “We’ve got to come up with a community-wide answer to this,” Franklin, Ohio County Commissioner John O’Grady told the Columbus Dispatch last week. “Nothing’s bigger than this thing and it keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

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