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Researchers use testing strips to detect fentanyl in street drugs to combat overdoses

February 6, 2018 GMT

In a new approach to curb drug overdose deaths from the opioid crisis, researchers are proposing arming users with testing strips that can detect the presence of the potent and deadly opiate fentanyl.

In a study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, low-cost fentanyl testing strips were shown to be highly accurate in detecting the drug. Moreover, a survey of drug users found that many support having a way to check street drugs to prevent overdoses.

“We are at a pivotal moment in the overdose epidemic, and we need to embrace the full range of interventions that can save lives,” Susan Sherman, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

“Our findings bring to the table evidence that can inform a public health approach to the fentanyl crisis. Smart strategies that reduce harm can save lives.”

The testing strips were initially designed to detect the presence of fentanyl in urine samples and have been used at supervised injection facilities in Vancouver, British Columbia, and in several syringe service programs in the U.S., according to the study.

The strips were tested in laboratory settings on samples of street drugs provided by police departments from Baltimore, Maryland and Providence, Rhode Island.

“The strips are appealing because they are so low threshold and have the highest sensitivity, specificity and level of detection,” Ms. Sherman said in the statement, but that other technologies tested, although costlier, could be as effective in a fixed-site setting.

At least 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. Fentanyl, which is chemically made and over 100 times more potent than heroin, is often mixed in with drug supplies and is unknown to the user. The researchers claim that fentanyl overdoses account for at least 20,000 of the drug deaths.

The majority of the fentanyl supply in the U.S. is sent through the mail system from China.

In cooperation with the Rhode Island Hospital/Brown University and support from the Bloomberg American Health Initiative, the researchers also served 335 drug users to see if they would be interested in using this technology.

In responses from users in Baltimore, Providence and Boston, an overwhelming majority (89 percent) agreed that testing for fentanyl in their drugs would make them feel better about protecting themselves from overdose. Eight-four percent of respondents said they are concerned the drugs they use contain fentanyl, with only one in four saying they actively seek out the drug.

Moreover, 70 percent said they would change their drug-using behavior if they knew fentanyl was present in their supply. They replied that they would either not use the drugs; use the drugs more slowly; use the drugs with others who have naloxone, the opioid reversal medication; or change their purchasing behaviors.