Overdose Deaths Linked To Elephant Tranquilizer More Than Double Across West Virginia

Steve Birr | Vice Reporter

Overdose deaths linked to heroin cut with a potent opioid meant for tranquilizing elephants more than doubled last year across West Virginia.

Data released by the West Virginia Health Statistics Center shows the opioid battered state continues to grapple with the influx of powerful synthetic opioids like carfentanil, which is roughly 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Early numbers reveal deaths from carfentanil jumped from 34 in 2016 to 78 in 2017, reports The Register-Herald.

Officials with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) note that a final tally of opioid deaths in 2017 is not yet available. Police departments in the state say the threat posed by carfentanil, which can be absorbed through the skin and inhaled, is forcing officers to take added precautions during drug encounters.

“Once we learned about exposure incidents, we changed our practices,” said Beckley Police Chief Lonnie Christian, according to The Register-Herald. “We no longer field test anything we believe contains carfentanil or fentanyl. As much as a grain of salt can cause an overdose. It’s so dangerous. Unless you’re wearing PPE, personal protection equipment, completely covering you from head to toe, there’s no way to avoid exposure.”

West Virginia continues to suffer from opioid abuse and currently has the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country.

Drug overdoses, fueled by synthetic opioids, are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing more than 64,000 people in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioid overdoses made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2016, surpassing the annual number of lives lost to breast cancer.

The epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S., officials say. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.

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