Powerful Drug For Animals Becoming The New Illegal Opioid Nightmare

TORONTO, Ontario — The opioid crisis continues to deepen. Canadian researchers are issuing a dire warning about the growing presence of xylazine, a drug originally intended for veterinary use, in the illicit opioid market. They found this drug is resistant to naloxone, which can treat and reverse opioid overdoses.

Xylazine, which is not approved for human consumption, is increasingly being mixed with fentanyl, a powerful opioid, in the street drug supply, according to the study authors. This combination poses a significant risk as people using these drugs may not be aware of xylazine’s presence. Researchers stress the importance of suspecting xylazine contamination when naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses, does not seem to work effectively.

Their article highlights several critical points about xylazine’s impact on human health. It enhances the euphoric effects sought by individuals using opioids but at a dangerous cost. Xylazine can induce sedation, lower blood pressure, and slow heart rate. These symptoms can continue even after using naloxone. These effects necessitate immediate attention to maintaining the airway and supporting breathing as primary treatment measures.

A particularly alarming complication of xylazine use is the development of severe, ulcerative wounds, markedly different from those typically associated with intravenous drug use. The long-term use of xylazine also leads to withdrawal symptoms, presenting a complex challenge as there are no approved treatments specifically for xylazine withdrawal. Management of these symptoms may require other medications to alleviate discomfort, irritability, and low blood pressure.

hands of veterinarian with syringe for injection for dog
Canadian researchers are issuing a dire warning about the growing presence of xylazine, a drug originally intended for veterinary use, in the illicit opioid market. (© rodimovpavel – stock.adobe.com)

Researchers point out a significant gap in the detection of xylazine, highlighting that it is not included in routine urine drug screenings. This omission complicates the ability of healthcare providers to identify and treat individuals affected by this substance. Moreover, there is no antidote for xylazine’s effects, leaving only supportive care as the current method of treatment.

“Specialized addictions care remains critical to addressing the underlying substance use disorder,” writes Dr. Peter Wu, an internist at University Health Network and the University of Toronto with Dr. Emily Austin of the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto, in a media release.

Their call to action underscores the urgent need for awareness among those on the front lines of the opioid crisis, including clinicians and harm reduction workers, about the unique challenges posed by the adulteration of the drug supply with veterinary medications.

As the opioid crisis evolves, the infiltration of xylazine into the illicit drug market represents a dangerous turn. This development necessitates a coordinated response from healthcare professionals, policymakers, and communities to mitigate the risks and protect those most vulnerable to the devastating effects of opioid addiction and adulteration.

The study is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is one of the most devastating public health crises of our time, affecting millions of individuals and communities across the globe. Originating from the overprescription of pain-relieving drugs, this epidemic has evolved into a complex issue involving illicit drug use and a significant increase in overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 645,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2021. Understanding the scale, causes, and potential solutions to this crisis is essential for addressing its impact and preventing further loss of life.

The opioid epidemic is characterized by the widespread misuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain relievers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, as well as illegal drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The crisis has escalated over the past two decades, with a sharp increase in the number of overdose deaths. In the United States alone, opioids are responsible for the majority of drug overdose deaths, with tens of thousands of lives lost each year.

Opioid crisis in the United States of America
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 645,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2021. (© Victor Moussa – stock.adobe.com)

The origins of the opioid epidemic can be traced back to the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers. This led to an increase in prescriptions, and, subsequently, widespread misuse of these medications before it became clear that they could indeed be highly addictive. The situation was exacerbated by the availability of cheap and potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which are often mixed with heroin or sold as counterfeit pills, significantly increasing the risk of overdose.

The impact of the opioid epidemic extends beyond the individual to families and communities, overwhelming healthcare systems, increasing the burden on social services, and contributing to economic loss. It has also led to a rise in newborns experiencing withdrawal syndrome due to opioid use during pregnancy. The epidemic has highlighted significant challenges in pain management, addiction treatment, and the social determinants of health, including poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to healthcare.

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