Fentanyl-Related Overdose Deaths On The Rise, Especially For Black Americans

Mar 26, 2018

New research finds that fentanyl is far more common than heroin in overdose deaths in Indianapolis and that blacks are particularly affected.

In 2017, nearly half of the people who died from an overdose in Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, had fentanyl in their system. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine.

According to the study, published in the journal, Addictive Behaviors, the presence of fentanyl in drug deaths “increased nearly five-fold” from 2013 to 2014. Fentanyl deaths spiked from April 2014 to June 2014 and then continued to rise.

In 2017 based on statistical models, the researchers estimate fentanyl was present in close to 50 percent of overdoses, outpacing heroin, which is involved in 37.4 percent.

Risk of fentanyl-related overdose increased more rapidly for blacks than whites. In January 2011 only 3 percent of black people who died from an overdose had used fentanyl. By April 2017, fentanyl was detected in 61 percent of black overdoses. Only 46 percent of white overdoses involved fentanyl.

This surprised study co-author Brad Ray, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He said black people are often left out of media discussions of the opioid crisis.

“The reason it’s been getting so much attention is because it’s been primarily white, caucasian deaths,” he said.

But Ray said this data makes it clear that’s affecting the black community too.

“And I think that going forward I can say with some certainty that it will be a part of the conversation,” said Ray.

He and his coauthors studied toxicology reports and death certificates gathered from the Marion County Coroner to understand overdose trends.

They found compared to all demographics, black women have experienced the fastest growth in drug deaths involving fentanyl.

This data also mirrors national trends. In urban areas where there are high rates of fentanyl use, the overdose rate has skyrocketed among black Americans.

The researchers also noted that fentanyl is often mixed with heroin or cocaine. But Ray was also surprised to learn that in many of the overdose deaths included in the study, fentanyl was the only opioid present. “You often hear about fentanyl being cut with all these other substances but there were quite a few cases where it was not,” said Ray.

Still, some people don’t know that the drugs they buy contain fentanyl until they overdose. That’s why Ray would like to see more widespread distribution of fentanyl-detecting test kits.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.