The public health agency analyzed data from its State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS) for the observation. SUDORS contains data from death certificates, medical examiner or coroner reports and postmortem toxicology results in 47 states and the District of Columbia. It found that there were 188 deaths involving xylazine in June 2022, way more than 12 such deaths in January 2019.
However, data from SUDORS used in the study only considered 21 jurisdictions. Given this, the true number of deaths involving xylazine may be bigger.
The CDC report also found that based on figures from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), monthly fentanyl overdoses involving xylazine rose by 276 percent in just over three years. According to the DEA, there were 808 drug overdoses linked to the street drug in 2020. That number shot up to 3,089 in 2021.
Xylazine – also called "tranq" – is often mixed with other street drugs as a cutting agent to stretch supply. It is nowadays mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, to make an even deadlier drug that rots users' skin from the inside and leaves them in a zombie-like state.
According to the Daily Mail, the CDC report comes on the back of a growing number of DEA seizures at the porous southern border. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is where much of the country's supply of fentanyl and xylazine is flowing. (Related: "Zombie drug" made from fentanyl and xylazine now hitting American cities, warns DEA.)
"The timing and magnitude of increase in detection of xylazine among [illicitly manufactured fentanyl-involved] deaths might reflect both increased frequency of testing and true increased presence in the drug supply in recent years," the study noted. "However, because of inconsistent testing, detection is still likely underestimated."
The CDC researchers expanded the study's scope during the latter 18 months of study to include data from 11 more states and the District of Columbia. During this particular period from January 2021 to June 2022, they found that xylazine was detected in nine percent of overdoses involving fentanyl.
Pennsylvania topped the list of states with the most number of fentanyl deaths involving xylazine during that 18-month period, with 1,285 fatalities. Maryland followed with 923 deaths, while Connecticut was next with 507 deaths.
Originally developed in the 1960s for veterinary use, xylazine works by relaxing the muscles of animals and relieving their pain. While not an opioid itself, it is mixed with other opioids such as fentanyl and heroin to reduce the number of times an addict needs to get a shot.
In many cases, drug users who inject the fentanyl-xylazine mix are "knocked out" on street corners and at bus stops for hours. When these people come to their senses, they find that the high from the drug has subsided – prompting them to start looking for the next hit.
Xylazine causes blood vessels to constrict, cutting off the flow of oxygenated blood through the body. This leads to the formation of deep lesions in the skin that progress to infections. If left untreated, these sores can cause a worse infection that may require amputation of affected parts.
Aside from this, the drug can also cause blurred vision, disorientation, drowsiness and staggering. It can also lead to coma, difficulty breathing and elevated blood pressure.
Xylazine also makes it difficult for addicts to be treated with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. While naloxone addresses the base drugs mixed with tranq, such as fentanyl or heroin, it cannot address the effects of xylazine such as problems with breathing and blood pressure. The Mail pointed out: "Recovery activists are worried that despite the wider accessibility of life-saving naloxone, they won’t be able to help the growing number of people falling victim to xylazine."
Watch this KPIX 5 report about the proliferation of xylazine in San Francisco.
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