ATLANTA - More than 1,000 people died over two years from an illegal version of the painkiller fentanyl, the government reported yesterday in its first national tally of those deaths.
The spike of overdoses seems to have ended, health officials said, pointing to law enforcement's shutdown of a fentanyl operation in Mexico in 2006.
The wave of fentanyl overdoses first came to light in Chicago in 2005, and by 2006 more clusters were identified in Philadelphia, Detroit, and other cities. Hundreds of deaths from the drug were gradually reported, often in local newspapers.
Yesterday's report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the toll at 1,013 deaths from early April, 2005, through late March, 2007.
"This was really an epidemic," said Dr. Steven Marcus, the executive director of New Jersey's poison-control center and a co-author of the new report.
Some deaths from illegal fentanyl still occur, but the worst of the outbreak seems to have ended after authorities shut down a fentanyl-making operation in Toluca, Mexico, in May, 2006, said Dr. T. Stephen Jones, the study's lead author.
"It almost disappeared entirely. The shutting of the Toluca facility was probably a major factor," said Dr. Jones, a consultant retired from the CDC. The new report is being published this week in a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Fentanyl is a prescription painkiller, often prescribed for cancer patients and administered through a patch. It also is a powerful, euphoria-inducing narcotic, 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
Illegally made versions are sold as a powder, often mixed with cocaine or heroin, and sometimes used as a heroin replacement. It's possible some heroin addicts are unaware fentanyl is part of their injection, some experts say.
Smaller outbreaks of fentanyl-associated deaths in addicts have been reported before, including the "China White" outbreak of the 1980s, famed for being so deadly drug users died with needles still in their arms.
The latest outbreak was first noted in Chicago. Patients who recovered from overdoses said they had been given free heroin in orange and pink plastic bags by new drug dealers trying to attract more customers.
It wasn't until overdoses seen in Camden, N.J., emergency rooms in April, 2006, that federal officials were notified of the problem, by Dr. Marcus.