Philadelphia officials warn of growing fentanyl crisis

PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia health and medical officials said Friday that more treatment and outreach are needed to respond to the city's growing opioid crisis, which is increasingly attributable to a rise in the use of fentanyl.

Last year, there were more fatal drug overdoses than murders in the city. About 700 people died from drug overdoses in Philadelphia in 2015, up from nearly 460 fatal overdoses in 2013.

The city's 2015 homicide rate was 280.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley called the situation an epidemic.

Fatal overdoses involving fentanyl increased more than sixfold between 2013 and 2015. The synthetic drug accounted for about 40 percent of overdose deaths for the first four months of the year - twice the rate for the same period in 2015.

"This drug is far more likely to kill you than heroin," Farley said of fentanyl.

Officials say fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, which makes it more likely that people who inject the drug will stop breathing and overdose. And because the drug is more powerful, it may require higher doses of antidotes like naloxone - also known as Narcan - to reverse its effects.

Some heroin users may unknowingly or mistakenly buy fentanyl and be unaware of its increased potency, which can put them at greater risk for overdose.

In response, the Department of Behavioral Health is expanding access to treatment, increasing the number of medication-assisted treatment providers and stepping up outreach efforts to addicts in hard-hit neighborhoods like Kensington, recruiting recovering addicts to encourage users to seek help.

Jeremiah Laster, deputy commissioner of Emergency Medical Services for the city, said paramedics responded to nearly 15,000 calls for overdoses and administered more than 3,000 doses of Narcan in 2015 - often to repeat patients.

"It is absolutely not uncommon for us to treat the same person over and over again," Laster said. "It's concerning to see that individual spiraling out of control. We can have the same John or Jane Doe that we picked up last month, last week, last fall."

Laster said the agency has an ample supply of the overdose-reversal drug. The city's vendor for the drug is charging a government rate of $37.52 per dose, up from $13.74 in 2013.


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This story has been corrected to show there were more than 700 fatal drug overdoses last year, not fentanyl overdoses; that murders were exceeded by drug overdoses last year, not by fentanyl overdoses; and that fentanyl accounted for about 40 percent of all overdose deaths during the first four months of 2016 and 20 percent during the same period in 2015.
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