CDC says counterfeit pill deaths have doubled since 2019

There has been a big increase in the proportion of overdose-related deaths attributed to counterfeit medicines – in other words, falsified drugs designed to mimic legitimate prescription products.

The latest update from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US – taken from data compiled in the last three months of 2021 – estimates that the percentage of deaths with evidence of counterfeit pill use more than doubled to 4.7 per cent from 2.0 per cent in July-September 2019.

Moreover, the rate tripled in western US states from 4.7 per cent to 14.7 per cent, with 93 per cent of all deaths involving the superstrength opioid fentanyl. The CDC estimates that there were 105,000 deaths from overdoses last year, meaning that thousands of those are likely to be a result of counterfeits.

Alarmingly, the CDC reckons that its findings are very likely an underestimate, due to their reliance on the "completeness of medical examiner and coroner reports" and a focus on counterfeit pills made to resemble formulations of oxycodone and alprazolam, excluding other commonly falsified medicines such as those used for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Counterfeit pill usage was found to be more prevalent among younger people, Hispanic or Latino individuals, and those with a history of prescription drug misuse and drug use by smoking, according to the data.

More than one-half (55.8 per cent) of overdose deaths with evidence of counterfeit pill use occurred in western jurisdictions, and that suggests that exposure to different types of counterfeit pills and drugs might vary by region, according to the CDC.

The agency recommends overdose prevention messaging that highlights the dangers of pills obtained illicitly or without a prescription – that are more likely to be counterfeit – and encourages drug product testing using fentanyl test strips. It should also be tailored to persons most at risk, such as younger age groups.

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