State officials said Monday that they believe five people became sick after using cocaine tainted with an anti-worm medication used by veterinarians.
The anti-worm medication was confirmed in three of the cases and suspected in two others. Two of the people with confirmed cases later died, though health officials said both patients had other contributing conditions.
It isn't the first time cocaine users in the U.S. have been sickened with tainted cocaine, but it's the first time the tainted drug has been found in Minnesota, said Carol Falkowski, director of the alcohol and drug abuse division for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.
The anti-worm medication, called levamisole, reduces people's white blood cell count, making them more susceptible to infections. Symptoms can include fever and darkened or dead-looking skin.
Those who fell ill in Minnesota all lived in the Twin Cities area. The victims ranged in age from 25 to 60 years old.
Falkowski said the anti-worm medication is cheap and easily accessible in South America, where much of the U.S. cocaine supply comes from. It's added to cocaine to dilute it and increase the volume of cocaine available for sale.
"People cannot tell by looking at the cocaine or tasting the cocaine if it has this levamisole contamination in it," Falkowski said. "People who've used cocaine should watch for possible infections that don't get better."
As of July 2009, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found levamisole in 69 percent of cocaine coming into the U.S. It was first linked to neutropenia, or low white blood cell counts, in cocaine users in April 2008 in New Mexico.
Falkowski said the Minnesota Department of Human Services, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Poison Control System will work with law enforcement agencies to figure out whether any cocaine seized by law enforcement contains the anti-worm drug.
While Falkowski said using cocaine is dangerous as it is, the tainted version of the drug can lead to even more problems for users.
"This certainly adds to the level of risk," she said.