As temperatures rise so do fentanyl deaths; experts say education saves lives

=Dr. Paul Christo, Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been on the frontlines battling the opioid crisis, and his message to lawmakers is clear.

“First of all, we have to make sure that we cut down on those that are manufacturing fentanyl illegally in the United States and also selling it illegally,” Christo said in a recent interview. “And then … we need to make sure that we educate young adults on the dangers of the use of fentanyl. This is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It can lead to death very quickly by ingesting just a little bit of it.”

Opioids help people manage chronic pain — and that’s a good thing. What went wrong?

“In the mid-1990s, more and more practitioners were using opioids as a first-line agent to reduce pain,” Christo explained. “And that, unfortunately, led to an increase in the use of opioids for chronic pain and probably increased the use for those who really didn’t need them.”

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There’s no question that the pandemic caused a troubling upward trend in addiction disorders, and a recent study predicts an additional 1.2 million drug overdose deaths in the next decade, with people in the Black community bearing the brunt of the opioid epidemic.

Christo wants to remind those battling addiction to make use of valuable telemedicine and tele-mental health services, and adds that it’s important for clinicians to advocate to their patients that online treatment options — including telehealth prescriptions for critical medications — are available.

The opioid epidemic today progressed in three phases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first involves deaths caused by prescription opioids, the second, an increase in heroin use, and the third, a surge in the use of synthetic opioids or fentanyl. Experts say the U.S. is right in the middle of the third phase of the epidemic, due to the increasing availability of fentanyl and increasing rates of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.

According to a recent study there were 632,331 drug overdoses between 1999 and 2016. Most of these deaths (78.2 percent) were drug overdoses with known drug classification. Moreover, 21.8 percent were unclassified drug overdoses. A further investigation revealed that for unclassified drug overdoses, 71.8 percent involved opioids, translating to 99,160 additional opioid-related deaths.

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There were over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, according to an estimate from the CDC. Based on findings from the new study, over half of those deaths — about 47,000 — are suspected of having involved opioids.

Another study on opioid overdoses found that the number of drug overdose deaths decreased by 4 percent from 2017 to 2018. In 2018, more than 67,000 people died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. Almost 70 percent involved a prescription or illicit opioid of those deaths.

“COVID-19 impacted the drug supply chain by closing borders on some regions, and it led to the higher death rate,” Christo explained.

He added that drugs become more challenging to get, and the potency of overdose goes up. It also impacts the price, everything goes up, and in that sense, it becomes more deadly each day, according to Christo.

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About Dr. Paul Christo
Dr. Paul Christo serves as Director of the Multidisciplinary Pain Fellowship Program at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He is the author of “Aches and Gains, A Comprehensive Guide to Overcoming Your Pain.” Christo also hosts an award-winning, nationally syndicated SIRIUS XM radio talk show on overcoming pain called, Aches and Gains®. For more information about Christo, visit www.paulchristomd.com.