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SPOKANE, Wash. -- One local death and another three serious illnesses may be linked to a nationwide cocaine contamination problem.
Patients with this condition elsewhere in the country, including Seattle, had life threatening infections requiring hospitalization and intensive care unit admittance, due to their use of cocaine contaminated with a drug used to treat animals.
Called levamisole, the contaminant critically reduces a person's white blood cells, causing a condition known as agranulocytosis, where the affected person loses ability to fight infection.
The Spokane Regional Health District is taking steps now to warn users of this potentially fatal mixture, while investigation of illnesses possibly caused by cocaine contaminated with levamisole is on-going. The Health District is working with a research doctor to identify local cases.
"We want anyone who uses cocaine to know about this added danger," said Dr. Joel McCullough, Health Officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. "Because people cannot tell if their cocaine or crack is contaminated just by looking at it, they need to know that they now face an even bigger risk when they use dangerous drugs like cocaine."
Levamisole is likely added to the cocaine product at the point of production outside of the United States. It can seriously reduce a persons white blood cells, suppressing immune function and the body's ability to fight off even minor infections. People who snort, smoke, or inject crack or powder cocaine contaminated by levamisole can develop overwhelming, rapidly developing, and life threatening infections.
Symptoms in persons using cocaine contaminated with levamisole include: High fever or chills, swollen glands, infections or sores in the mouth, skin or anus, white coating of the mouth, tongue or throat (thrush), and Pneumonia, which includes cough, fever, and shortness of breath.
Persons using cocaine and experiencing any of these symptoms should seek medical attention at an emergency room or other medical provider immediately. Cocaine causes overdose and death every year in Spokane.
SEATTLE - Contaminated cocaine is making its way into the Seattle area, said public health officials, and it's already sent three patients to hospitals with life-threatening illnesses this past month.
Each case is likely linked to cocaine contaminated by levamisole, an anti-worming medication for pets, which in humans depletes white blood cells, effectively compromising the body's immune system.
"Typically people then develop overwhelming infections and get admitted into intensive care units," said Dr. Bob Wood with Seattle-King County Public Health.
While the three patients have recovered, Wood says others around the world have died. Either way, the price of hospital treatment and care is high. One of the Seattle cases cost more than $100,000.
"Some of those folks may have insurance," said Dr. Wood. "And then the insurance will pick it up, but then the insurance company will spread it around the health care system and we'll all be paying for it."
No one seems to know how or why the chemical is getting into cocaine shipments, though drug experts speculate the white powder is being used to dilute supplies. A 2008 DEA report says up to 30 percent of seized cocaine now contains traces of levamisole.
Meanwhile, Seattle King County Public Health is warning area hospitals and other agencies to be on the lookout for more cases.
And they're warning cocaine users with serious infection-like symptoms to seek medical attention rather than hide their drug use.