By Pat Anson
Nearly three out of four opioid overdoses in Massachusetts have been linked to fentanyl, far outnumbering the number of deaths associated with prescription pain medication, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
Massachusetts was the first state to begin using blood toxicology tests to look specifically for fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is more potent and dangerous than heroin. Toxicology tests are far more accurate than the death certificate codes used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to classify opioid-related deaths.
Over 1,000 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdoses were reported in Massachusetts in the first nine months of 2016.During the third quarter (July-September), 74 percent of the deaths where a toxicology screen was available showed a positive result for fentanyl.
Almost all of those deaths are believed to involve illicit fentanyl, not pharmaceutical fentanyl that is prescribed to treat severe pain.
“The data released today are a sobering reminder of why the opioid crisis is so complex and a top public health priority,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. “This is a crisis that touches every corner of our state, and we will continue our urgent focus expanding treatment access.”
Only about 20 percent of the overdose deaths in Massachusetts were associated with prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, a trend that has held fairly steady since 2014, even as the number of opioid prescriptions in the state has declined.
“I think this points to the fact that cutting scripts for legitimate pain patients and blaming doctors for overdose deaths is pointing fingers in the wrong direction and harming a lot of innocent people living with debilitating pain while doing nothing to reduce overdose deaths – a critical goal,” said Cindy Steinberg of the U.S. Pain Foundation, a patient advocacy group. “People living with the disease of chronic pain and those living with the disease of substance use disorder are two different populations of people with little overlap.
“If we are committed to doing all we can to stop overdose deaths then the only way we can do that is to really understand what exactly is causing them. The fact that illicit fentanyl is the cause points to the need for increased law enforcement efforts to interdict the supply coming into Massachusetts.”
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, chemicals used to make illicit fentanyl are being smuggled in from China and Mexico. Illicit fentanyl is usually mixed with heroin or cocaine, and it is also appearing in counterfeit pain medication sold on the black market. The drug is so potent that a single pill could be fatal.
Rhode Island is also using blood toxicology tests to help determine the true nature of the opioid epidemic. The most recent data from that state shows that about two out of three opioid overdoses are linked to fentanyl. Since 2012, overdoses from prescription opioids have fallen by about a third in Rhode Island.
“The shifts in prescription and illicit drug overdose deaths also began roughly when more focused efforts were undertaken nationally to reduce the supply of prescription drugs,” the Rhode Island Department of Health said in a statement.
The CDC uses death certificate codes – not toxicology tests — in its reports on opioid overdoses. The codes do not indicate the cause of death, only the conditions or drugs that may be present at the time of death. Because of limitations in the data, many overdoses involving illicit fentanyl and heroin are being reported by the CDC as prescription opioid deaths.