Kratom-related deaths documented locally, as CDC says more U.S. deaths are linked to the herbal supplement

Updated: Apr. 12, 2019 at 7:26 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -It’s from southeast Asia and more people are consuming kratom, the Mitragyna Speciosa plant. But the Centers for Disease Control says deaths involving Kratom in the U.S. are more common than previously thought.

"People don’t think that something legal poses this sort of risk,” said Dr. Arwen Podesta, an addiction specialist in New Orleans.

The CDC says from July 2016 through the end of 2017 Kratom was a cause in 91 overdose deaths in 27 states.

"It is very likely that a lot of the deaths certainly related to a combination of drugs in the system, things that overwhelm the system and cause respiratory depression. However, some of those reports were in fact said to be Kratom alone,” said Dr. Podesta.

Jefferson Parish is seeing kratom-related deaths.

"Two in 2017, one was where kratom was actually listed as the cause of death and the other one it was an incidental finding. We had the exact same numbers in 2018 where we had one kratom death where it was listed as the cause of death, the other, it was an incidental finding on the autopsy,” said Jefferson Parish coroner Gerry Cvitanovich.

Incidental finding means Kratom showed up in the decedents’ toxicology, but was not the cause of death.

Cvitanovich said the trend continues in Jefferson Parish.

"This year, so far in 2019 we’ve had two kratom-related deaths,” he said.

According to the CDC’s report, Kratom was the only substance detected in seven of the nearly 100 deaths.

Medical experts say plant which is often consumed in teas, or capsules affects the brain.

"So, it works at the opioid receptor like heroin and morphine do, but also works to stimulate, so more like speed at a lower doses,” said Podesta.

She said the substance can pose health risks.

"Taking Kratom by itself could certainly pose some risks with people who have medical conditions such as cardiac, or seizure disorders and people could die from those exacerbated by the Kratom, or caused by Kratom, people that don’t even have those underlying disorders,” Podesta stated.

The American Kratom Association, which says at least 5 million Americans use Kratom, issued a response to FOX 8 News:

“The American Kratom Association (AKA) welcomes the Centers for Disease Center (CDC) report because it confirms that there is a need for appropriate regulations to ban adulteration of kratom, and to assure consumers with clear product labeling what is in the kratom products they are purchasing.

The CDC report actually concludes that Kratom was “present primarily in deaths that occurred as a result of overdoses related to substance misuse and that kratom was most often detected in combination with multiple other substances.”

In addition, the postmortem toxicology testing detected multiple substances for almost all decedents. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogs were the most frequently identified co-occurring substances in so-called “kratom-involved deaths.”

Dr. Podesta also talked about the other substances.

"Probably other things like heroin and fentanyl and benzodiazepines, all that work at the brain stem to lower your respiration rate, causing respiratory depression and death,” said Podesta.

And while plants look harmless many have potent medicinal properties. "Most pharmaceuticals are derived from plants originally and so whole plants, just because they're whole doesn't necessary mean that they don't have psycho-active properties,” added Podesta.

Dr. Cvitanovich thinks the number of deaths nationwide could be higher because some coroner’s offices are not yet looking for the substance.

"A lot of municipalities and counties don’t have the ability to actually check for Kratom,” he said.

The AKA says Kratom is not a drug and is not dangerously addictive and maintains that it does not cause overdose deaths.

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