A relentless fourth wave of opioid epidemic is sweeping across the United States, with an alarming surge in fentanyl overdose deaths, leaving no community untouched.
Kim Blake, who lost her son Sean to a tragic accidental fentanyl overdose six years ago in Vermont, reflects the pain and grief experienced by countless families across the country due to the opioid crisis.
In 2021, the U.S. reached a grim milestone, with over 100,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in a single year. Shockingly, more than 66% of these fatalities were linked to fentanyl, an incredibly potent synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin.
While fentanyl is a pharmaceutical drug prescribed for severe pain, it is also illegally manufactured and trafficked by criminal organizations.
The majority of illegal fentanyl in the U.S. is trafficked from Mexico, using chemicals sourced from China, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In 2010, drug overdose deaths in the U.S. numbered less than 40,000, and fewer than 10% of those fatalities were attributed to fentanyl. During this period, deaths were primarily driven by the use of heroin or prescription opioids.
However, a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), analyzing data from 2010 to 2021 compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reveals how fentanyl has reshaped the landscape of drug overdoses in America over the past decade.
“The rise of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has ushered in an overdose crisis in the United States of unprecedented magnitude,” the study’s authors assert.
Fentanyl-related deaths were initially observed to surge in 2015, and since then, this synthetic opioid has infiltrated every corner of the nation, with death rates sharply rising.
“In 2018, around 80% of fentanyl overdoses happened east of the Mississippi River,” explained Chelsea Shover, an assistant professor at UCLA‘s School of Medicine and co-author of the study. However, in 2019, “fentanyl becomes part of the drug supply in the Western US, and suddenly this population that had been insulated from it is exposed, and death rates start to go up,” she added.
The research also raises concerns about another emerging trend: deaths linked to fentanyl combined with other stimulant drugs like cocaine or methamphetamine. While this trend manifests differently in various regions due to distinct drug use patterns, it is evident across the U.S.
African Americans are also experiencing higher rates of deaths caused by a combination of fentanyl and other drug use, cutting across age groups and geographical boundaries. The opioid crisis, traditionally depicted as a “white problem,” has thus become a growing concern within African American communities.
Harm reduction specialists like Rasheeda Watts-Pearson in Ohio have noticed the troubling impact of fentanyl on the African American community, with deaths on the rise. Watts-Pearson and organizations like A1 Stigma Free are working tirelessly to raise awareness of fentanyl’s lethal presence in street drugs, aiming to combat the lack of awareness, historical healthcare disparities, and a lack of representation in opioid crisis awareness campaigns that have disproportionately affected minority communities.