Synthetic opioids including fentanyl have surpassed prescription opioid painkillers as the leading cause of overdose mortality in the U.S., according to a new analysis, making up nearly half of all opioid-related deaths in 2016.
Research published Tuesday in JAMA found synthetic opioids were the contributing factor in more than 19,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, compared to more than 17,000 attributed to prescription opioids and more than 15,000 deaths due to heroin.
Synthetic opioids were involved in just 14% of all opioid-related deaths in 2010, but have spiked since to more than 45% of such deaths by 2016, according to the analysis.
"Lack of awareness about synthetic opioid potency, variability, availability and increasing adulteration of the illicit drug supply poses substantial risks to individual and public health," study authors wrote.
In 2016, more than 63,000 overdose deaths occurred in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 42,000 involved opioids. Drug overdoses surpassed auto accidents a few years ago as the leading cause of death from unintentional injury in the country, and has set record highs each of the last two years.
Fentanyl has become a significant driver of those deaths, as drug dealers increasingly lace heroin, prescription opioids and other types of drugs with the cheap and easily accessible painkiller.
There have also been cases where fentanyl was used to make counterfeit versions of prescription opioids, leading to user deaths.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
The numbers represent how the opioid addiction epidemic has evolved quicker than responses to its impact.
Lawmakers have focused on educating physicians to improve their prescribing habits to curb the rise in substance use disorder cases. But as evidence shows that opioid prescriptions are decreasing, the number of overdose deaths has kept climbing.
The problem has been especially difficult for first responders; some have reported growing problems using reversal medication naloxone to revive victims who've taken fentanyl.
Last July, investigators at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced they had encountered a counterfeit pill containing a fentanyl strain known to be resistant to naloxone.
Expanding access to naloxone is a key Trump administration priority in fighting the opioid epidemic. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams issued an advisory recently calling for anyone who knew someone misusing opioids to carry naloxone.