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Drug overdose deaths spiked in Virginia in 2016, fueled by an influx of illicit fentanyl into the state, according to a report by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
There was a 72 percent increase in deaths from heroin and fentanyl abuse in 2016 from the previous year, according to the fatal drug overdose report for the fourth quarter of 2016, prepared by Kathrin Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist. The substances accounted for 810 deaths last year and 471 in 2015.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 80 times more potent than morphine that is mainly prescribed as a painkiller for cancer patients. Deaths from prescription fentanyl use have declined, but it’s estimated that more than 94 percent of the overdoses stem from fentanyl produced illegally.
Hobron said Thursday that much of the illicit fentanyl is produced in clandestine laboratories in China. It’s apparently then shipped into the United States from Mexico, either sold as-is, or used to cut heroin to enhance profits. Usually, users are unaware there’s fentanyl in the mix.
“That’s what’s causing the issues,” she says. “(A) very little amount can kill you.”
Another problem is that the illicit fentanyl makers are churning out analogs, structurally similar products, as they try to circumvent laws.
It’s just gotten to be a big problem,” says Hobron.
Fatal fentanyl overdoses in Virginia rose 174.7 percent in 2016 from the previous year, from 225 in 2015 to 618 last year. There was a 31 percent rise in heroin overdose deaths in the state, from 342 to 448.
In the metro area, three cities had some of the highest rates of death from drug overdoses in the state. There were 94 overdose deaths in the city of Richmond, a rate of 43.1 per 100,000 residents; 16 in Petersburg, or 49.9 per 100,000; and 10 in Hopewell, or 43.1 per 100,000. In 2015, drug overdoses killed 64 people in Richmond, 2 in Hopewell and 6 in Petersburg.
Drug overdoses have been the leading cause of early deaths in Virginia since 2013. Overdoses were a factor in 1,420 deaths last year, up from 1,028 in 2015. That was a 38.1 percent increase for the year. The other two leading causes of early deaths in 2016 were gun-related fatalities, which claimed 1,057 lives, and 889 deaths in vehicle wrecks in Virginia.
Gun-related deaths have increased since 2012. Hobron speculates that the firearms-related fatalities stem from homicides related to the drug trade.
The 2016 statistics used in the report are preliminary, with 60 cases remaining open for the year.
A roundup of the week’s health and medicine news
- The Big Pig Project, a fundraiser for Ronald McDonald House Charities in Richmond, is set for noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 22, at Lunch / Supper, 1215 Summit Ave., at West Marshall Street. The street festival features barbecue, country music, adult beverages and an auction of hand-painted concrete pigs for the garden. It’s free, but they suggest a donation of $5. Food, beverage and raffle tickets are available, and you can get a combo for $40 that includes admission, your meal and two drink tickets here.
- You can learn first aid techniques to help your pet in classes offered from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Richmond SPCA Robins-Starr Humane Center, 2519 Hermitage Road. Topics include poisoning, treating wounds, CPR and choking. It costs $75 and is offered through Alpha Dog Club. Classes also will be offered May 13, June 17, July 22, Sept. 23 and Oct. 14. Space is limited to a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 30. Click here for reservations.
ARC Ladybug fundraiser 2017
Julie Gassay (left) and Kendall Solo share a moment at the annual Ladybug Fund Winetasting and Silent Auction. The 17th annual event, held March 25 at the Torque Club at Richmond International Raceway, raised $95,000 to benefit Greater Richmond ARC. (Photo courtesy Greater Richmond ARC)
- There’s a voluntary product recall underway for a prepackaged salad that may have been contaminated with “extraneous animal matter.” Said matter apparently was a dead bat, according to a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is assisting in the investigation. The bat was found in a salad sold in Florida, and apparently two people had eaten some of the salad before they found the remains. According to the CDC, the remains were sent to a laboratory to determine whether the animal was rabid, but it was too deteriorated for the lab to assess. Transmission of rabies would be rare, but out of an abundance of caution, the two people were “recommended to begin post-exposure rabies treatment.”