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Xylazine: rotting zombie drug kills first in Europe

The first UK death linked to the zombie drug xylazine raises concerns about the shifting origin of opioid supplies in Europe.

A 43-year-old man in the UK has become Europe’s first known victim of xylazine, a rotting zombie drug, a powerful tranquilizer commonly used by vets on large animals that recently made its way onto the global illicit drug market.

The man, identified by British media as Karl Warburton, died at his home in May 2022, but was only recognized as the first likely xylazine victim in the UK after a study published this week by researchers at Kings College London ( KCL).

The study looked at all drug-related deaths reported to the UK’s National Substance Abuse Deaths Program (NPSAD) for cases with xylazine detections and found one. A report on the case was published in Journal of Forensic and Forensic Medicine.

Warburton had a history of illicit drug use and had been referred to addiction services on several occasions, according to the coroner’s report.

Doctors found traces of heroin, cocaine, fentanyl and xylazine in his body. He probably wasn’t aware that he was consuming the zombie drug, according to the researchers, who said Warburton was he had probably bought heroin and was not known to be accompanied by xylazine and fentanyl.

The study added that, to our knowledge, this is the first death associated with xylazine use reported in the UK and even Europe, and marks the entry of xylazine into the UK’s medicines supply.

What is Xylazine?

Xylazine, also known as a sedative or sedative drug when combined with heroin or fentanyl, is a sedative used on large animals to relieve pain and relax muscles. It is not suitable for human consumption, in any dose.

When injected into a person’s body, it can cause a dangerously slow heart rate and large, open skin wounds such as ulcers and abscesses.

Over the long term, these wounds can spread to a person’s arms and legs and cause them to rot, a grim phenomenon that has earned xylazine the nickname the zombie drug. The dead tissue eventually has to be amputated.

The use of xylazine in the illicit drug market was first detected in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s and has been reported in North America ever since. In the United States, the drug is considered an emerging threat and is now involved in 7% of all overdose deaths in the country.

The spread of the substance in the illegal North American drug market recently prompted overdose alarms in the United States, a country already ravaged by a deadly fentanyl epidemic that has killed tens of thousands over the past two decades.

Like fentanyl, xylazine is often mixed with heroin by manufacturers of illicit drugs because it reduces the cost of producing large batches of heroin.

As a sedative, xylazine is also used to prolong the short-lived feeling of euphoria provided by fentanyl, to mimic the high of heroin.

How did the drug reach Europe?

Xylazine is not included in standard drug tests in the UK, so there’s no way of knowing whether Warburton was actually the first person to die after taking the drug, or how widespread it is in the European illicit drug market, especially compared to opioids.

Heroin has traditionally reached the European market from Afghanistan, where the Taliban announced a ban on poppy production last year. But the impact of the ban is likely to be felt in Europe with some lag, given that last year’s crop was exempt.

Nearly all of Afghanistan’s opium is harvested between April and July and, according to recent estimates from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), it takes anywhere from a year to 18 months to reach the heroin markets.

So while heroin can still be easily found in Europe this year, that may not be the case next year, opening up opportunities for new drugs to enter the market.

The discovery of xylazine in the UK, as demonstrated by Warburton’s death, may already signal a shift in opioid supply to Europe, with the Taliban ban offering illicit drug makers in South America a chance to capture the European market. according to Caroline Copeland, a professor of pharmaceutical medicine at KCL.

Heroin users should therefore be aware of the additional risks of tranquilizer use, especially since the opioid overdose reversal agent naloxone is not effective against the sedative effects of xylazine, he wrote in The conversation.

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