Elephant tranquilizer carfentanil causes first death in Chicago area

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CHICAGO -- Addicts and occasional opioid drug users take risks with their lives, but many don’t even know they are taking this new drug.

Experts say this is the first time they’ve seen it. It's amazingly powerful and deadly within seconds.

It is called carfentanil -- it is 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

"These are drugs that work similar to morphine but carfentanil is one of the drugs in the synthetic class, meaning it’s man-made," said Dr. Steven Aks, Stronger Hospital, Emergency Medicine and Toxicology.

Drug dealers are manufacturing their own version of a painkiller used by veterinarians to immobilize elephants. In people, it leads to instant death.

"It’s really like a ticking time bomb because it’s so potent. If someone thinks they are getting something else, like just straight street heroin for example, its being so much more potent, they’re likely to stop breathing and die," Aks said.

A 35-year-old Lake Zurich man became one of the first victims in Cook County of synthetic fentanyl.

"People should be aware that this ultra potent opioid is out there and it really is a death sentence," Aks said.

The opioid epidemic has been on the rise in Cook County. The statistics are alarming -- in 2014, there were 20 fentanyl-related deaths. In 2015, the number soared to 102. So far in 2016, 380 people died after taking fentanyl or a fentanyl analog like carfentanil.

"We are truly in an opioid epidemic right now and we really have to put all resources of public health together so that we can help solve this problem," Aks said.

In an effort to save lives, naloxone has been made available by prescription. If administered immediately after an overdose of heroin, for example, it can completely reverse an overdose. But carfentanil may be too strong for naloxone.

"The problem with carfentanil is because it is so potent, we are not sure how effective it is going to be," Aks said.

With the growing list of users, doctors say everyone needs to know that addiction is not the only threat -- instant death is likely. That’s why they say anyone with a drug problem needs to reach out for help.

"We have to work on de-stigmatizing this drug addiction cycle substance abuse disorder. Think of it as a medical illness, it’s affecting so many people that we need to get people into care and treatment to get them well," Aks said.