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Alaska sees sharp increase in overdose deaths due to rise in fentanyl use

Published: Apr. 14, 2022 at 9:51 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin is linked to an increase in drug overdoses here in Alaska. The problem has become so severe that the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services held a webinar on April 14 to address the sharp surges in overdose deaths due to fentanyl.

Between 2020 and 2021, Alaska has experienced a 68% increase in the number of overdose related deaths, according to a press release from the department. According to the health department, the state saw 146 drug overdose deaths in 2020. That number jumped up to 245 last year. Dolores Van Bourgondien, a nurse practitioner in Juneau, sees first hand the epidemic fentanyl is causing.

“I have had multiple new patient walk in’s today, we’ve had multiple new patient walk in’s all over our clinics in Alaska. And the surge in fentanyl the last ... probably in the last three to four months, but the last couple of weeks has been horrific,” Van Bourgondien said.

According to Van Bourgondien, fentanyl is cheap to manufacture and produces a strong high so dealers will either mix or replace fentanyl into other substances. What she is noticing through her patients is that fentanyl has been packaged in powder form and fraudulently sold as heroin for years.

Over the past few years, it’s even been mixed with stimulants such as cocaine and meth. With fentanyl, she went on to say that conventional methods for treatment are also more difficult. If an individual uses just heroin, they can begin suboxone within 16 hours, but with fentanyl, people have to wait 24 hours. Van Bourgondien even said she is treating patients that are getting younger and younger.

“We need to know that. Those numbers, this shouldn’t be swept under the rug, there shouldn’t be stigma surrounding it,” she said. “This needs to be an open conversation. ... There’s nothing worse for me, I have to teach parents how to tell their 9, and 10, and 11-year-olds how to use Narcan.”

Narcan is a prescription medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose and was a huge topic of conversation at the webinar. The state allows residents to get it without a prescription.

The state health department encourages Alaskans to be aware of the risks. If people have friends and loved ones who use drugs regularly, they should check in with them frequently. Alaskans who use substances that may be cut with fentanyl are also encouraged to be trained in how to use fentanyl test strips and to test all drugs before using.

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