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New CDC Data Show the Role of Fentanyl and Its Analogs Play in Opioid Death Toll

In this Thursday, O, ... ]

In this Thursday, O, ... ] (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

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Connecting state and local government leaders

No state was as harder hit by fentanyl’s animal tranquilizer cousin, carfentanil, than Ohio.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the extent to which synthetic opioids like fentanyl, along with the drug’s numerous analogs, is driving increases in overdose deaths across the nation.

Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and its even more powerful chemical cousins like carfentanil, have been historically hard to track because their detection requires specialized and expensive toxicology testing. The CDC even acknowledges that its own figures may be understating the problem due to the logistical challenges associated with pinning overdose deaths on these drugs.

The report, which is the first of its kind to use toxicologic data across multiple states, examined deaths in 10 states during a six-month period from July to December 2016. This data was studied as part of the Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance Program, a CDC partnership which funded efforts to better track opioid-involved overdoses in 12 states in 2016. That program has since been expanded to include 20 new states and Washington, D.C..

In the states studied, fentanyl was detected in nearly 57 percent of the 5,152 opioid overdoses during that time. Fentanyl analogs were found to be responsible for 720 deaths and of those analogs, carfentanil was by far the deadliest, accounting for as many as 389 fatalities. The drug, which was originally developed as a sedative for big game like elephants and hippos, is fatal in doses as small as a few grains of sugar.


Of the 10 states studied by the CDC, none felt the toll of carfentanil more powerfully than Ohio. Of the 389 carfentanil deaths the study counted, 354 occurred in the Buckeye State.

Quinn Libson is a Staff Correspondent for Government Executive’s Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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