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3 Vermont minors have died from fentanyl-related overdoses since 2021

In the past two years, three Vermont minors have died from fentanyl-related drug overdoses — just as a growing number of children around the country are dying from the synthetic opioid.

A 17-year-old boy died in Johnson in January 2022 after taking a mixture of cocaine and fentanyl. Less than four months later, an infant died in Barre after inadvertently swallowing drugs that included fentanyl and xylazine, according to death certificates obtained from the Vermont Department of Health.

Fentanyl also played a role in the demise of a young Vermonter in 2021. But the health department said it couldn’t release any details about that case because the person died in another state, which has jurisdiction over those death records. All three deaths of minors were ruled accidental.

Fentanyl, which has displaced prescription painkillers and heroin as the dominant illicitly used opioid nationwide, is 50 times as strong as heroin and 100 times as strong as morphine. Since 2016, fentanyl has been the drug most often seen in fatal overdoses among Vermonters — which reached an unprecedented 217 deaths in 2021.

The preliminary death toll for last year — not including November and December — stands at 190 with 94% of deaths involving fentanyl. If the outstanding fatality numbers for the last two months of 2022 contribute to the upward trajectory, the year could set a record.

Despite the growing prevalence of fentanyl in the past several years, a public records request showed the state hadn’t recorded a Vermont minor’s accidental death from fentanyl ingestion until 2021.

Some death certificates from 2022 are still being processed, so the numbers could still change.

“Any loss of life that could have been avoided is tragic, especially when young Vermonters are involved,” said Emily Trutor, deputy director of the state health department’s division of substance use programs. “While the Health Department cannot comment on these specific deaths, we can all take steps to protect our most vulnerable community members.”

Trutor said people who bring potentially harmful substances home should keep them out of children’s reach. She said the substances could be stored in locked cabinets or containers, or placed on high shelves that children can’t see and reach.

Trutor added that anyone with opioids at home should have naloxone on hand and know how to use the opioid overdose antidote, commonly available under the brand Narcan.

Nationwide, fentanyl-related child deaths in the United States have surged since 2015, according to an analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by the nonprofit group Families Against Fentanyl.

Between 2015 and 2021, fentanyl poisoning among infants (children younger than 1) increased by nearly 10 times. And such deaths among children 1 to 14 years old rose by 15 times, the group reported in January.

“Synthetic opioid (fentanyl) fatalities among children are rising faster than any other age group,” the report reads.

Among infants, the number of deaths quadrupled between 2019 and 2021, from 10 to 40, according to a VTDigger analysis of the report’s underlying data.

The 1-4 age group showed an even bigger spike: There were 12 deaths nationally in 2017, which rose to 93 in 2021.

A separate study, which the CDC published in December, looked at fatal drug overdose trends among people 10-19 years old. It found that between July 2019 and December 2021, the vast majority of such deaths involved opioids.

Of 2,231 total deaths recorded throughout the U.S., 91% of the cases involved at least one opioid while 84% more specifically involved illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

The study attributed the higher risk of fatal drug overdoses in this age group to several factors. One is the widespread availability of illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Another is the ease of buying pills through social media. It also pointed to the proliferation of counterfeit pills resembling prescription drugs but that contain illicit drugs, including fentanyl.

According to the CDC, some 107,400 people in the country died of drug overdoses and drug poisonings in the 12-month period ending in January 2022. And 67 percent of those deaths involved synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

To prevent overdose deaths among adolescents, the researchers suggested multiple approaches. Those included strengthening partnerships between public health and public safety agencies to reduce the availability of illicit drugs, ensuring access to evidence-based substance use treatment, and expanding access to naloxone.

“Our hearts go out to the families who experienced these tragedies,” said Dr. Javad Mashkuri, director of the rural communities opioid response program with the Central Vermont Prevention Coalition. Its service area includes Barre, where the infant died of a fentanyl-xylazine overdose last year.

“Reducing the harmful impacts of substance use requires focused attention, collaboration and innovation,” Mashkuri said. “It also requires communities that care and are free of stigma and misunderstanding.”

Program Coordinator Eva Zaret said the coalition’s work includes supporting the recently established Foundation House in Barre, a residence for women in recovery and their children. It is the first recovery residence of its kind in central Vermont.

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