Medical Examiner Reports Deaths Caused by Powerful Opioid

May 8, 2017

The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office has confirmed more than 40 deaths in 2017 due to a powerful, new opioid.

The office has confirmed that from January through April 8, 44 deaths were attributed to acrylfentanyl, a new fentanyl analog whose potency is still being studied. 

The data for 2017 is not a real time number, as toxicology testing can take several weeks.

In 2016, seven deaths were attributed to acrylfentanyl. 

The Medical Examiner’s Office has seen a marked increase in deaths from fentanyl and fentanyl analogs since 2015.  The office has determined its recent findings require notice to the general public and to first responders.

"Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are very powerful drugs that are likely to be lethal," said Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s Chief Medical Examiner. “Just one dose can easily stop a person from breathing, causing immediate death.”

“These high-potency opioids and opioid analogs are thousands of times stronger than street opioids like heroin and are far more likely to cause death,” said Dr. Steve Aks, emergency medicine physician and toxicologist at the Cook County Health & Hospitals System's Stroger Hospital. 

“In many cases, one dose of naloxone, the heroin antidote, will revive a person who has overdosed on heroin. But we are seeing people in our emergency department who need increased doses of naloxone – in some cases as many as four doses – for the patient to be stabilized after ingesting fentanyl, or a heroin/fentanyl combination. The EMS and emergency medicine community needs to be aware of the potential need for additional naloxone in such cases.” 

In 2016, a total of 1,091 people in Cook County died, at least in part, because of an opiate-related overdose. In 2015, 649 people in Cook County died, at least in part, because of an opiate-related overdose.

Of the opiate-related overdoses in 2016, 562 people died, at least in part, after using fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, which are illicit versions of fentanyl, a powerful drug used by physicians to treat severe pain.

The most common fentanyl analogs in Cook County include furanyl fentanyl and a precursor/metabolite of fentanyl called despropionyl fentanyl or 4-ANPP. Toxicology tests show decedents have used fentanyl and analogs alone, as well as with heroin and with other drugs such as cocaine.