Could a vaccine (and more) fix the fentanyl crisis?


This discussion was recorded on Aug. 31, 2022. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Robert Glatter, MD: Welcome. I’m Dr. Robert Glatter, medical advisor for Medscape Emergency Medicine. Today we have Dr. Paul Christo, a pain specialist in the Division of Pain Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and host of the national radio show Aches and Gains on SiriusXM Radio, joining us to discuss the ongoing and worsening fentanyl crisis in the U.S.

Welcome, Dr Christo.

Paul J. Christo, MD, MBA: Thanks so much for having me.

Dr. Glatter: I want to begin with a sobering statistic regarding overdoses. There were over 107,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. from 2020 to 2021, of which over two thirds involved the synthetic opiate fentanyl, based on recent data from the CDC.

Let’s start by having you explain how deadly fentanyl is in terms of its potency compared with morphine and heroin.

Dr. Christo: Fentanyl is considered a synthetic opioid. It’s not a naturally occurring opioid like morphine, for example, or codeine. We use this drug, fentanyl, often in the anesthesia well. We’ve used it for many years as an anesthetic for surgery very safely. In the chronic pain world, we’ve used it to help reduce chronic pain in the form of a patch.

What we’re seeing now, though, is something entirely different, which is the use of synthetic fentanyl as a mind- and mood-altering substance for those who don’t have pain, and essentially those who are buying this off the street. Fentanyl is about 80-100 times more potent than morphine, so you can put that in perspective in terms of its danger.

Dr. Glatter: Let me have you take us through an evolution of the opioid crisis from the 1990s, from long-acting opioid OxyContin, which was approved in 1995, to where we are now. There are different phases. If you could, educate our audience on how we got to where fentanyl is now the most common opiate involved in drug overdoses.

Dr. Christo: It really stems from the epidemic related to chronic pain. We have over 100 million people in the United States alone who suffer from chronic pain. Most chronic pain, sadly, is undertreated or untreated. In the ‘90s, in the quest to reduce chronic pain to a better extent, we saw more and more literature and studies related to the use of opioids for noncancer pain (e.g., for lower back pain).

There were many primary care doctors and pain specialists who started using opioids, probably for patients who didn’t really need it. I think it was done out of good conscience in the sense that they were trying to reduce pain. We have other methods of pain relief, but we needed more. At that time, in the ‘90s, we had a greater use of opioids to treat noncancer pain.

Then from that point, we transitioned to the use of heroin. Again, this isn’t among the chronic pain population, but it was the nonchronic pain population that starting using heroin. Today we see synthetic fentanyl.

Addressing the synthetic opioid crisis

Dr. Glatter: With fentanyl being the most common opiate we’re seeing, we’re having problems trying to save patients. We’re trying to use naloxone, but obviously in increasing amounts, and sometimes it’s not adequate and we have to intubate patients.

In terms of addressing this issue of supply, the fentanyl is coming from Mexico, China, and it’s manufactured here in the United States. How do we address this crisis? What are the steps that you would recommend we take?

Dr. Christo: I think that we need to better support law enforcement to crack down on those who are manufacturing fentanyl in the United States, and also to crack down on those who are transporting it from, say, Mexico – I think it’s primarily coming from Mexico – but from outside the United States to the United States. I feel like that’s important to do.

Two, we need to better educate those who are using these mind- and mood-altering substances. We’re seeing more and more that it’s the young-adult population, those between the ages of 13 and 25, who are starting to use these substances, and they’re very dangerous.

Dr. Glatter: Are these teens seeking out heroin and it happens to be laced with fentanyl, or are they actually seeking pure fentanyl? Are they trying to buy the colorful pills that we know about? What’s your experience in terms of the population you’re treating and what you could tell us?

Dr. Christo: I think it’s both. We’re seeing young adults who are interested in the use of fentanyl as a mind- and mood-altering substance. We’re also seeing young and older adults use other drugs, like cocaine and heroin, that are laced with fentanyl, and they don’t know it. That’s exponentially more dangerous.

Fentanyl test strips

Dr. Glatter: People are unaware that there is fentanyl in what they’re using, and it is certainly leading to overdoses and deaths. I think that parents really need to be aware of this.

Dr. Christo: Yes, for sure. I think we need better educational methods in the schools to educate that population that we’re talking about (between the ages of 13 and 25). Let them know the dangers, because I don’t think they’re aware of the danger, and how potent fentanyl is in terms of its lethality, and that you don’t need very much to take in a form of a pill or to inhale or to inject intravenously to kill yourself. That is key – education at that level – and to let those who are going to use these substances (specifically, synthetic fentanyl) know that they should consider the use of fentanyl test strips.

Fentanyl test strips would be primarily used for those who are thinking that they’re using heroin but there may be fentanyl in there, or methamphetamine and there may be fentanyl, and they don’t know. The test strip gives them that knowledge.

The other harm reduction strategies would be the use of naloxone, known as Narcan. That’s a lifesaver. You just have to spritz it into the nostril. You don’t do it yourself if you’re using the substance, but you’ve got others who can do it for you. No question, that’s a lifesaver. We need to make sure that there’s greater availability of that throughout the entire country, and we’re seeing some of that in certain states. In certain states, you don’t need a prescription to get naloxone from the pharmacy.


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