State health officials and law officers issued a strong warning on Thursday about a powerful synthetic drug that is believed to be responsible for an overdose death last month in Transylvania County and two others across the state.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services issued the advisory related to acetyl fentanyl, following at least three deaths related to the synthetic drug. Toxicologists at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner detected acetyl fentanyl in the overdose victims after the deaths in Sampson, Person and Transylvania counties.
Because the final death certifications are pending, local and state officials could not confirm the deaths were caused by acetyl fentanyl, said state HHS spokeswoman Julie Henry.
"Our intention in getting this out right away was to make people aware that this drug was out there and it's very dangerous," she said.
Chief Deputy Eddie Gunter of the Transylvania County Sheriff's Department said detectives are investigating a drug overdose death that occurred last month.
"We're 90 percent sure this is going to be the one we're talking about," he said. "It's scary because this is a new drug."
Acetyl fentanyl is an opioid analgesic drug that is up to five times more potent than heroin, the state HHS said. It is an analog of fentany — a powerful narcotic analgesic — and is not available as a prescription drug in the United States.
"There's no doubt about it. It's an extremely powerful, dangerous drug," he said.
Last June, the CDC issued an alert to public health agencies, state laboratories, medical examiners, coroners and emergency departments to be on the lookout for acetyl fentanyl. The CDC also advised emergency departments and emergency medical services to ensure that they have adequate supply of naloxone, an emergency antidote to opioid overdose.
The alert came after Rhode Island officials reported that 14 overdose deaths from acetyl fentanyl between March and June 2013. Since then, the drug has been linked to additional deaths in Pennsylvania, Louisiana and now North Carolina.
"It is important for law enforcement, medical professionals and our citizens to be aware that this dangerous drug is in North Carolina," Acting State Health Director Robin Gary Cummings said in a news release. "Acetyl fentanyl is another addition to a growing list of synthetic drugs and represents a serious threat to public health."