The amount of legal fentanyl prescribed in Virginia rose only 10 percent from 2007 to 2014.
But the annual death toll in Virginia — thanks in large part to the illegally produced version of the drug — nearly tripled in that time frame, from 48 to 134. And last year, fentanyl was linked to an estimated 221 deaths in the state, more than any opiate-based substance other than heroin.
Those statics come from a June 12, 2016, Roanoke Times article titled, appropriately and ominously, “Fentanyl Is Now Virginia’s Deadliest Painkiller,” Similar headlines have appeared on news reports from Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and numerous other states.
In fact, the fatal overdose problem has gotten so bad that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in late August 2016 sent an urgent letter to 2.3 million doctors and health care providers asking them to prescribe and administer fentanyl with great care. Dr. Murthy also called on everyone to treat opioid addiction as a serious medical condition first instead of viewing someone’s struggle with these heroin-like drugs as a personal failing.
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He further advised patients and their family members to dispose of unused opioid doses safely and to keep doses of naloxone to hand. Naloxone, which is usually prescribed under the brand name Narcan, can completely reverse an overdose of fentanyl, OxyContin (oxycodone) or heroin, but it must be injected within minutes of when overdose symptoms appear.
The real key to reducing fentanyl-caused deaths, though, appears to be keeping the powerful prescription painkiller out of people’s hands. Fentanyl has a the highly beneficial, and sometimes lifesaving, purpose of controlling the crippling pain of late-stage cancer. Drugmakers and compounding pharmacists make it available as pills, capsules, injections, sprays, patches and troches, which most people call lollipops. A common brand name for fentanyl is Duragesic.
Since the late 1990s, it has become a go-to for treating acute pain -- sharp, but short-term, like the kind from surgery -- and chronic pain -- like the kind associated with back and neck injuries. This has happened because once the FDA approves a drug, doctors can prescribe it for any purpose. While pharmacists play an important role in protecting patients from potentially harmful medications, most will have little reason to question the legitimate need for a drug like fentanyl when the prescription order they receive is properly filled out and passes checks such as comparisons of DEA numbers.
Still, the drug is increasingly easy to obtain via legal means and illegal sales. It has even begun showing up as an addition to heroin because it is both easier and easier to get than the pure Schedule I narcotic. This is ironic in that many heroin users report first becoming addicted to opioids while using fentanyl under a doctor’s care. The situation is also too often tragic because fentanyl is more power than heroin, so adding the two creates a potentially deadly combination.
Doctors and pharmacists who overprescribe or negligently dispense opioids like fentanyl can sometimes be held liable in civil lawsuits for causing wrongful deaths. If one of your loved ones has succumbed to a fentanyl overdose, you should consider speaking with a Virginia medical malpractice and dangerous drugs attorney.