Heroin overdoses appear to be sweeping the nation as a tainted version of it pervades various parts of the country. Overdoses of at least 100 people have taken place from Maryland to Pennsylvania and New Hampshire to Washington State. Allegheny County had three overdoses last Friday and four on Saturday. Maryland officials have seen three dozen deaths since September and in Pennsylvania, two dozen this month alone.
The deadly concoction is a mixture of heroin and an opiate named fentanyl, typically used to ease the pain of cancer patients. It first came to attention in the middle of January when it was found to be the cause of 22 deaths in Western Pennsylvania, according to medical officials.
Fentanyl is odorless and may be in liquid or powder form. It is most often taken intravenously but can be smoked or snorted. One hundred times more potent than morphine, it was first manufactured in Belgium in the 1950s and began its medical use a decade later.
Heroin has experienced a comeback since New York and other states across the country have made it more difficult to obtain prescription pain killers. Officials attribute new laws, which challenge the ability of addicts to “doctor shop” and have multiple prescriptions written, to the recent heroin overdoses sweeping the nation. This new trend makes addicts more likely to turn to street dealers to purchase what they think to be heroin but, as seen in the recent past, is not. However, in some cases, officials report addicts are seeking fentanyl to add to the heroin they purchase to give the heroin an extra “boost.”
Medical officials state both heroin and fentanyl slow down breathing and the respiratory system and can do so to the point of death. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports 4.2 million people from the age of 12 or older have used heroin at least once in their lives. Approximately 23 percent of people who use heroin become addicted.
Heroin can be smoked, injected or inhaled by snorting or sniffing. This delivers the drug to the brain very quickly where it is then converted back to morphine. It then attaches to molecules of brain cells known as opioid receptors. These opioid receptors are located in various parts of the brain, particularly the brain stem. The receptors control critical automatic body functions – such as breathing, arousal and respiration – and are also responsible for the sensation or perception of pain and reward.
Regular use of heroin can literally change the brain and its ability to function. One result of this is the ability of the user to tolerate more and more of the drug. Dependence is another side effect, often with the user having uncontrollable desires to seek out the drug. Chronic use can result in serious health conditions such as collapsed veins, infectious diseases, abscesses, pneumonia and even infections of the heart valves and the lining of the heart wall.
In the meantime, officials across the country are organizing special task forces to combat the disturbing dilemma of heroin overdoses sweeping the nation. Officials are looking at numerous ways to solve the problem, including targeting dealers and working in partnership with other agencies.
By Wendy Waring