A new batch of synthetic opioid drugs has hit the streets of North Carolina in recent months with deadly consequences, according to state health officials.
The drugs are known by the scientific names furanylfentanyl and U-47700, though some dealers and users call them “Fu-fen” and “U4.” State health officials say the drugs are similar to heroin but more potent and dangerous.
Since the beginning of the year, 19 people have died using the synthetic drugs, state health officials said Thursday in a health alert that warned law enforcement agencies and medical professionals about them.
It’s not clear where the drugs are produced, said Alexandra Lefebvre, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health and Human Services, but the agency’s alert says that “the geographic range of deaths attributed to these drugs indicates widespread use and availability across the state.”
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Neither of the drugs is available by prescription in the United States.
The emergence of deadly synthetic drugs has caught the attention of public health officials in recent years. In 2013, state health officials warned that acetyl fentanyl, a drug five times more potent than heroin, had killed three people in Person, Sampson and Transylvania counties and sickened another in Cumberland County.
Furanylfentanyl, or Fu-fen, is chemically similar to acetyl fentanyl.
In 2014, three more people died in Chatham County and eight others were sickened by the pain killer fentanyl. State health authorities said fentanyl was 20 times more potent than heroin, and state law enforcement officials said people were increasingly using the drug to get high.
The synthetic opiates all have one important common denominator: They can kill their users, who many times do not realize what they are ingesting. In the case of the Chatham County deaths, fentanyl had been combined with powder cocaine, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.
It was a point state health officials echoed again Thursday when they said the synthetic drug are sometimes substituted for and sold on the street as heroin.
“The recreational use of synthetic drugs represents a major threat to public health,” Deborah Radisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, said in a statement. “It’s very important for medical professionals and law enforcement to be aware of these dangerous drugs, and know that people they encounter who may have used these drugs could require specialized care and treatment.”
Fentanyl has been used by hospitals since 1968 to induce anesthesia in patients before surgery or to treat chronic pain. It is only available by prescription and is strictly controlled in hospital settings, said Dr. Ruth Winecker, chief toxicologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile, U-47700, or U4, is a research chemical used in medical and scientific research and requires sophisticated equipment to produce, Lefebvre said. It is not intended for human consumption.
“The use of research chemicals is a growing problem in North Carolina,” Winecker said. “In addition to U-47700, we have detected six other new research chemicals in North Carolina deaths in the last six months.”