Opioid-related deaths on the rise in Cook County

Opioid-related deaths have risen sharply since September in Cook County, according to the medical examiner’s office.

Toxicology results that came back this month show there have been 106 deaths attributed to fentanyl, an opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and its analogues since September 2015, according to a statement to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

Most of those deaths recorded happened between September and December 2015 because toxicological tests can take up to three months, the medical examiner’s office said.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues pose a great public health [risk] because people may not know they’re using a very powerful drug,” Deputy Chief Toxicologist for the medical examiner’s office Dr. Peter Koin said in the statement.

Fentanyl may be prescribed by a doctor for severe pain, but illicit fentanyl analogues are typically not pharmaceutical-grade drugs, the medical examiner’s office said.

“In addition, we’re seeing new versions of fentanyl and testing for these substances is challenging because we’ve never seen them before. It’s something brand new,” Koin said.

At least seven deaths since mid-December were caused in part by one such analogue, furanyl fentanyl. Since September, another six deaths have been attributed to acetyl fentanyl and another involved butyryl fentanyl. People who have died have used fentanyl alone, with heroin and with other drugs like cocaine, according to the medical examiner’s office.

In many cases, heroin users have been supplied with heroin mixed with fentanyl, pure fentanyl, and fentanyl derivatives resulting in overdose, according to the medical examiner’s office.

“Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are a huge concern because fentanyl is 20 to 100 times more potent than heroin, posing a much greater risk of overdose,” Dr. Steven Aks, a physician and toxicologist at Stroger Hospital, said in the statement.

Someone who has overdosed on heroin usually only needs one dose of naloxone, the heroin antidote, but someone who has ingested fentanyl or a heroin/fentanyl combination may need up to four doses, Aks said.

The medical examiner’s office began regularly testing for fentanyl starting in June 2015 after national trends showed a spike in fentanyl use. Previously, pathologists would request a test for fentanyl depending on the circumstances of the death.