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Fentanyl found in 3 recent overdose deaths in Anchorage

Three people are confirmed to have died from opioid overdoses in recent weeks in Anchorage, and all tested positive for fentanyl, the state health department said Friday.

Eight additional suspected overdose deaths in late April are still awaiting toxicology results.

"With three (toxicology results) already back, that's enough to say we're concerned," said Dr. Jay Butler, the state's chief medical officer and head of the Alaska Division of Public Health.

These cases bring the total number of confirmed opioid overdose deaths in 2017 to 22 statewide, Butler said. That number may change as additional investigations are completed.

The opioid deaths appear to be attributable to a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, Butler said. Of the 11 recent suspected and confirmed overdoses, nine were in Anchorage.

Butler wants to warn people that fentanyl is circulating in Anchorage, bringing with it greater dangers of overdose and death.

"We have no idea if this is over yet, or how much of this fentanyl-laced heroin is still out on the street," Butler said.

Last week, the Anchorage Fire Department reported a surge of heroin overdoses since the first of the month.

During the first half of May, Anchorage's emergency responders used naloxone 34 times to revive people from suspected heroin overdoses, according to the fire department.

The month before, responders used naloxone only six times.

But earlier this week, it wasn't yet clear whether the number of overdose deaths had increased too, Butler said. Now they can be sure.

"It looks like we are," Butler said.

Mike Crotty, Anchorage Fire Department EMS battalion chief, demonstrates the intranasal use of naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, Nov. 13, 2015. Narcan is used by EMS personnel when responding to heroin overdoses. (Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch News)

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid typically prescribed in the form of transdermal patches and used for treating severe pain.

When used illegally, it is often manufactured on the black market and mixed with heroin or other drugs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

In Alaska, fentanyl played a role in 27 deaths between 2014 and September 2016, according to the health department.

Gov. Bill Walker declared Alaska's opioid crisis a public health disaster in February. In 2016, 49 people died of heroin overdoses, up from 35 the year before, the health department reported. Another 65 died from opioid pain relievers, slightly down from 68 the year before.

Free naloxone overdose-reversal kits are being given out through Project Hope partners statewide. A map of distributing agencies can be found at www.opioids.alaska.gov and www.heroin.alaska.gov.

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