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Earlier this month, officials from San Diego reported that at least seven area residents died from a flesh-eating bacteria associated with the use of black tar heroin. Another two patients who contracted the same bacteria survived.
Reports from local officials state that flesh-eating bacteria linked to heroin use is quite rare—usually resulting in about one case per year in San Diego County—and that an outbreak of this magnitude is unusual.
While officials are not certain that the bacteria came from heroin use, it is assumed to be the cause of the sudden increase in cases at this point.
“It can be in the dirt, it can be on the surface of your skin, it can be the surface of a needle, but when you have a cluster like this, it makes it very suspicious that it’s the actual black tar heroin itself that’s contaminated,” said Dr. Eric McDonald, director of epidemiology and immunization services at the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency.
Patients who have contracted flesh-eating bacteria can expect to experience symptoms such as pain, swelling, pale skin, blisters, fever, and a rapid heart rate. Because many of those symptoms overlaps with those of an overdose or illicit drug use, it can be difficult for a person to determine if they have contracted the bacteria, leading to myonecrosis.
Once contracted, flesh-eating bacteria act quickly, leading to devastating outcomes such as loss of limbs, and even death. The soft-tissue infection occurs rapidly, destroying muscles in the process.
The sudden onset of myonecrosis means that officials are working fervently to spread awareness of the risks, which are already significant enough in black tar heroin that has not been contaminated with bacteria.
With a black, sticky substance, black tar heroin is much different in appearance than typical heroin. The drug earns its name from the tar used in paving, and is tough in texture, like coal.
Widely produced in Mexico, the substance is most popular in the Western United States, such as in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. The drug is much less pure than the white powder version, and is often referred to as having lower quality. Large Californian cities, like San Diego, have been struggling with black tar heroin for many years.
When consumed, black tar heroin produces the same euphoric-like effects that heroin users are accustomed to. Over time, users will develop a certain tolerance for the drug, often times leading to an addiction or dependence on the substance.
Aside from the potential of contracting flesh-eating bacteria, black tar heroin users are also at risk for developing wound botulism. Although botulism is often treatable, it is a very serious condition that can lead to paralysis or death when left untreated.
With the news of flesh-eating bacteria rising in the Western United States, it is crucial for the public to become educated on the risks of heroin use of all types, and the evolving medical complications associated with certain types of the drug.
As we enter a season of holidays and celebration, the tendency to relapse grows, with higher amounts of stress and temptation present. Remaining hyper-vigilant is key, whether you are in recovery, or are part of someone in recovery’s support system.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a heroin addiction, support is available. With so many unknowns associated with the production of illicit substances, it is more important than ever to understand the medical risks involved—and the availability of treatment to overcome addiction.
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