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Fentanyl overdoses leading cause of death among young people in Pima County

Overdose deaths on pace to set record for the 3rd consecutive year

Fentanyl overdoses are now the leading cause of death among kids and teenagers 19 and under in Pima County, putting the county on pace to set a record for overdose deaths for the third consecutive year.

From January to June, at least 245 people — including 17 under the age of 19 — died from drug overdoses, and 57 percent of those deaths were linked to Fentanyl. The county estimates that by the end of the 2021, more than 500 people will have died, said officials with the Pima County Health Department.

While Fentanyl is used in the medical field to treat patients with severe pain, or as a pain-reliever after surgery, officials have found that the drug—considered 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine or heroin—is regularly used in counterfeit pills and laced with other drugs, the county said.

The county said that over the past four years, the average age of those who died from overdoses in Pima County has "dropped significantly, in part due to increases in teens and young adults dying from Fentanyl."

"Generally speaking, young people tend to have a limited understanding of health risks, and are prone to engaging in risky behaviors, which often include experimenting with drugs," said Mark Person, the program manager for Pima County Health Department's Community Mental Health and Addiction team.

"This makes Fentanyl in particular extremely enticing to young people compared to other drugs, due to how cheap, accessible, and potent it is. For these reasons, Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death among kids 19 and under, in our community. It’s usually in the form of a counterfeit blue pill that contains an unpredictable dose, making it impossible to know whether or not the person will experience a high or die.'

262 people died of overdoses in 2015, but by the end of 2020, 446 people had died from drug overdoses, the county said.

Among kids, two children 12 and under died from overdoses, and 15 kids aged 13-19 died from overdoses. The largest contingent of people who overdosed in Pima County was 30-39 years old.

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The county also noted that overdose deaths in Pima County are occurring "disproportionately in communities with the highest social vulnerability," though a map of overdose deaths showed overdoses across the valley,  including a few cases in the foothills, and Marana and Oro Valley.

The majority of deaths involved an opioid, and nearly one-third of deaths from overdose included both an opioid and a psychostimulant like methamphetamine or cocaine, the county said. Meanwhile, the number of deaths linked to Fentanyl has ramped up since 2016. Around 140 deaths were linked to Fentanyl over the first six months of 2021, a figure that far exceeds 2019 when the county reported 89 deaths.

The month of May was the worst month in Pima County, when at least 57 people overdosed.

The county said that around 94 percent, or 230 were ruled accidental, while 8 cases were ruled as suicide. The remain 7 cases remain undetermined, the county said.

To blunt the increase in overdoses, the county has created avenues for people to get Naloxone. The drug, often sold under the brand-name Narcan, is a life-saving medication that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose. The county recommended that people who know they have opioids in their home, including Fentanyl, heroin, or prescription pain relievers, have Naloxone available.

The Health Department has a partnership with the Pima County Public Library to supply free Narcan kits to the public, and there is a standing order in Arizona allowing people to buy Naloxone at licensed pharmacies, the county said.

The county is also recommending that people get Fentanyl test strips, which can be used to detect Fentanyl in other drugs. The tests can be purchased online, the county said. These testing strips were removed from a list of illegal drug paraphernalia by a bill signed into law earlier this year by Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey.

"Drug use claims far too many lives each year," Ducey said. "We want everyone who is using drugs to seek professional treatment. But until someone is ready to get help, we need to make sure they have the tools necessary to prevent a lethal overdose."

The bill was introduced by state senator Christine Marsh, who lost her son to an overdose in 2020.

"No one should have to suffer the loss of their loved one to addiction or accidental overdose," Marsh said in a May press release. "Illegal drug use can be extremely dangerous, and with the prevalence of Fentanyl being laced into other drugs, it can be deadly. We have to make sure families and young Arizonans have the resources needed to prevent a lethal Fentanyl overdose, and this legislation will provide an additional tool."

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1 comment on this story

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50 comments
Aug 6, 2021, 2:38 pm
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Maybe if you stopped making all the world so extremely dystopian, people would stop trying to escape it with substances that cause such great harm. It is, like the suicide rate, a symptom that your cultural leadership itself is urgently diseased and warring against the people’s spirits.

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