Fentanyl Overdose Cases may be Underreported

The opioid epidemic shows no signs of stopping since its first recorded presence around 1999. In the face of mounting awareness initiatives and federal legislation to quell the crisis, new and more potent illicit opioids continue to flood the streets of North America, devastating big cities and small towns from coast to coast. A recent study uncovered that, despite the current national record-breaking opioid overdose deaths, the number of people losing their lives to fully synthetic opioids might be under-reported.

Insufficient Testing Methods

When someone is experiencing an opioid overdose, their lifelines will most often include EMTs and the emergency department at a nearby hospital. Toxicology panels are performed on these patients to identify which drugs they have in their systems to best treat them and track public health record trends observing illicit drug use. Routine toxicology screens typically include screening for amphetamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, cannabis, phencyclidine, and opiates. Opiates include substances like morphine and heroin, which are both derived from the poppy plant. However, much more potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl are not usually detected and require a separate test to be ordered to the lab.

Misleading Statistics

There has been a 56% increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids from 2019 to 2020, meaning an eighteen-fold rise since 2013. In 2017, about 45-50% of cases indicated overdose death caused by opiates, but have since decreased to a dramatic low of less than 14%. With opioid-related deaths at an all-time high, it just doesn’t add up.

Most recently, emergency departments have begun testing more often for synthetic opioids, but the screening rate remains at a meager 5% despite more than 56,000 overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids in 2020 alone. When testing for synthetic opioids occurs, the positivity rates catapult to nearly 50%, more than three times the positivity rates for opiates.

Changing with the Times

The alarming statistics of opioid-related overdose deaths have begun to garner media attention, but this recent study highlights that things are probably much worse than they appear. Drugs like fentanyl are now commonly present in street drugs marketed as non-opioids, causing accidental overdose and needless deaths. Due to the pervasiveness of these cheaply manufactured yet extremely powerful synthetic opioids, everyone is at risk of exposure, and it only takes a tiny amount to prove fatal. 

There is much more work to be done to continue battling opioid use disorder, and it starts with proper testing protocols in healthcare facilities that tend to the most vulnerable. With adequate tracking of drug toxicology, health officials and the public can be made more aware of the dangers around them. Along with easier access to drug screenings, early intervention and addiction treatment availability are essential for early intervention among individuals at the highest risk.

With so many unknown dangers lurking among illicit opioids, there has never been a more pertinent time for people to seek opioid use disorder treatment. Middlesex Recovery outpatient offices offer specialized professional care for those struggling with addiction and provide discreet and evidence-based methods to overcome substance misuse and reach long-lasting recovery. To learn more about the programs available at Middlesex Recovery, message or call the nearest location today.