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opioid crisis
January 31, 2019

A truck filled with cucumbers turned out to have a much more insidious load onboard: $3.5 million in fentanyl and $1.1 million in methamphetamine.

Border patrol agents announced the drug bust on Thursday, which was made with the help of a drug-sniffing dog, NBC News reports. Smugglers had hidden 254 pounds of fentanyl under the floorboard of a truck at the border's port of entry in Nogales, Arizona, along with 395 pounds of methamphetamine.

Fentanyl was credited with 18,000 overdose deaths in 2016, making it the deadliest illicit drug out there, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report recently found. Thursday's haul contained enough fentanyl to kill about 57 million people, an internal border patrol report obtained by Fox News said. That bust breaks a previous record of 118 pounds of fentanyl found in Nebraska last year, per the Kansas City Star.

The illegal drug trade has been a major talking point in President Trump's quest for a southern border wall. Conservatives quickly seized on the discovery, with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) using it to declare "there is a crisis on our border." Still, Drug Enforcement Agency records show a wall wouldn't curb the drug flow. A "majority of the flow" of drugs over the U.S.-Mexico border happens at legal ports of entry, and only "a small percentage" is seized during illegal crossings, the DEA said in its 2018 threat assessment. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 25, 2019

Americans are dying in ever-increasing numbers as the ongoing opioid crisis rages on. They're also forming a growing percentage of organ donors, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Friday shows.

In 2010, about 8.9 percent of organs came what the CDC calls "increased risk donors," Stat News describes. That term describes "donors at increased risk for transmitting" hepatitis B and C and HIV to recipients, the CDC report describes. About 4.3 percent of 2010's organ donors had died due to drug intoxication, and another 1.3 percent had reported injection drug use in their lifetime, with both of those factors qualifying them as IRDs.

But in 2013, the Public Health Service changed its guidelines, encouraging the testing of donors for hepatitis and HIV and separating donors in standard risk and increased risk categories. As of 2017, nearly all IRDs are tested for these viruses, allowing more of their organs to be safely used in transplants. There's also been an increase in infection monitoring once those organs are transplanted into recipients. This has all allowed the number and proportion of IRD transplants to safely triple from 2010, making up 26.3 percent of all deceased donors in 2017, the CDC numbers show.

America still faces a critical organ shortage, which scientists hope to solve by growing human organs, perhaps in other animals. But in the meantime, this report suggests further testing and virus prevention methods could allow for safe IRD transplants to continue. Read the whole CDC report here. Kathryn Krawczyk

January 16, 2019

In a court filing released Tuesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey asserts that the former president of Purdue Pharma, Richard Sackler, knew in the early 2000s that his company's powerful opioid painkiller, OxyContin, was being abused, but still pushed it on doctors and tried to blame users for becoming addicted.

"We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible," Sackler, whose family owns Purdue Pharma, wrote in a 2001 email. "They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals." This was one of several internal documents cited in the court filing, The New York Times reports, which also alleges that Sackler told sales representatives they needed to urge doctors to prescribe the highest dosage of OxyContin, because Purdue made the most money off of those pills.

In June, Healey sued eight members of the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, and several directors and executives, accusing them of misleading doctors and patients about the risks of taking OxyContin. Purdue Pharma has long said the Sackler family was not involved in marketing the drug, which came on the market in 1996. Doctors were told that it was next to impossible for people to abuse the painkiller; since then, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from OxyContin overdoses.

The court filing says the Sackler family also knew that Purdue Pharma was aware early on that OxyContin was being abused by some users and sold on the street, but never told authorities. Purdue Pharma said in a statement the court filing is "littered with biases and inaccurate characterizations." The Sacklers are extremely wealthy, with OxyContin sales helping boost their bank accounts, and involved in philanthropy. With this latest court filing, it's expected that many institutions will be urged to decline or give back their gifts, the Times reports. Read the entire complaint against Purdue Pharma at The New York Times. Catherine Garcia

January 13, 2019

One person in Chico, California, was killed and 12 more hospitalized, four of them in critical condition, after a mass overdose in which police say the victims likely ingested the opioid fentanyl.

Officers were called to a Chico home Saturday, and "found multiple individuals in what appeared to be life-threatening overdose conditions," said Michael O'Brien, Chico's police chief. They administered CPR and naxalone, an opioid antidote. "Certainly there’s potential for additional fatalities," O'Brien said. "I want to emphasize that."

Two of the responding officers were "potentially exposed" to the fentanyl and also received treatment at the hospital, though it was not immediately clear how the exposure occurred. Bonnie Kristian

June 25, 2018

The opioid crisis has been steadily growing more dire for years, and new evidence has surfaced suggesting there are unexpected consequences even to treating the harmful addiction epidemic. CNN reported Monday that more and more young children are being unintentionally exposed to buprenorphine, a drug commonly used to treat opioid addiction.

Between 2007 and 2016, over 11,000 calls were made to U.S. poison control centers regarding children's exposure to the drug, a study published in the journal Pediatrics on Monday revealed. Eighty-six percent of those calls were about children under 6 years old.

Buprenorphine is "never prescribed" for children that young, and poses "a significant risk" to them, said Henry Spiller, one of the authors of the study. While 89 percent of the cases in the study concerned unintentional exposure, Spiller notes that intentional use is especially common among adolescents, with the intent of intoxication or even suicide.

The rate of exposure to buprenorphine almost doubled over the course of the study. With an increasing number of people misusing prescription opioids or otherwise battling addiction, misuse of treatment drugs like buprenorphine is likely to rise even more in the coming years.

The study shows that even the most well-intentioned methods for curbing the opioid epidemic can be harmful to "those who are most vulnerable," said Dr. Jason Kane, an associate professor of pediatrics and critical care with the University of Chicago. Read more at CNN. Shivani Ishwar

May 24, 2018

The nation's opioid crisis isn't limited to the landbound.

Scientists near Seattle, Washington, found that some marine creatures have absorbed drugs that end up in the waters due to human drug use, KIRO News reported Thursday.

When looking for water contamination, scientists found that mussels in the Puget Sound tested positive for oxycodone and other chemicals. Sealife can get contaminated when humans ingest opioids, because people later excrete trace amounts of drugs, which end up in wastewater. The wastewater is cleaned, but not all drugs can be filtered out.

“It's telling me there's a lot of people taking oxycodone in the Puget Sound area,” one researcher told KIRO.

Researchers found that mussels in multiple locations had absorbed not only opioids, but also antibiotics and other prescription drugs. Washington officials said that the contamination shouldn't make it unsafe to eat mussels, since shellfish in restaurants are coming from different areas. Read more at KIRO News. Summer Meza

March 19, 2018

President Trump pushed his proposed border wall as a method to combat the national opioid crisis in a speech in New Hampshire on Monday.

"Ninety percent of the heroin in America comes from our southern border," said Trump. "Eventually the Democrats will agree with us, and we'll build the wall to keep the damn drugs out."

His call for additional border security elicited a standing ovation from the audience, who cheered and chanted in support of a wall. Attendees also applauded the president's pledge to deploy the death penalty for drug dealers, whom he called "terrible people."

In his remarks, Trump additionally slammed sanctuary cities, which shield some immigrants from deportation by allowing local authorities to decline to cooperate with federal immigration officers. The president said that removing sanctuary policies was crucial to stopping the opioid crisis, saying that they "shield dangerous criminals" who are responsible for drug dealing. Other strategies mentioned were "commercials" to deter children from trying drugs and battling pharmaceutical companies who push to overprescribe pain medications.

Watch Trump's comments on the border wall below, via Fox News. Summer Meza

February 6, 2018

The Trump administration is sparking concerns over just how seriously it is taking the opioids crisis as experts at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) are apparently being pushed aside in favor of the leadership of inexperienced political appointees, Politico reports. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is overseeing the administration's efforts to combat the crisis, although her team does not have a permanent director and its top appointee for months was a 24-year-old former Trump campaign staffer. The acting director of the ONDCP, who has served in the office for decades, has reportedly not been invited to attend any of the meetings between Conway and her team.

"I haven't talked to Kellyanne at all and I'm from the worst state for this," added Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia. Regina LaBelle, who served as the ONDCP's chief of staff under former President Obama, said: "I don't know what the agency is doing. I really don't. They aren't at the level of visibility you'd think they'd be at by now."

President Trump has been criticized for failing to act in any meaningful way after declaring an opioids emergency last year. "The main response so far has been to call for a border wall and to promise a 'just say no' campaign," Politico writes, adding that Trump is expected to propose "massive cuts" to the ONDCP next week.

"It's fair to say the ONDCP has pretty much been systematically excluded from key decisions about opioids and the strategy moving forward," stressed a former Trump administration official. An estimated 175 people die a day from opioids; STAT announced last year that opioids could kill nearly 500,000 Americans in the next decade. Read more about concerns sparked by the Trump administration's approach to the crisis at Politico. Jeva Lange

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