SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — The so-called addiction of the 1980s is again thriving three decades later. But modern day cocaine is packing more than an instant high; it’s eating the skin of some users alive.
“The body is eating away at itself. It’s actually from the inside out,” said Dr. Barry Zevin, internist and addiction specialist at San Francisco’s Tom Waddell Health Center.
Over the past year and a half, Zevin said, “I’ve seen three or four patients where I said this is definitely a case.”
The cases include an ear, a nose tip, an arm, even on the chest, turning purple then black where the skin and flesh suddenly died. But Zevin said he’s seen more people with skin ulcers and low white blood cell counts.
Dr. Noah Craft of UCLA-based LA BioMed has called it a potential public health epidemic.
“Unfortunately it goes hand in hand with destruction of the bone marrow,” Craft said. “If you don’t know your bone barrow is being destroyed, then you have serious infections and die.”
The tainted cocaine is being cut with a banned drug called Levamisole, which is used to de-worm livestock.
Dr. Randy Syd of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic said even though the drug was banned for human use, it’s still widely available to veterinarians, both here and in South America where much of the West Coast cocaine is coming from. Levamisole looks just like cocaine, and it doesn’t matter if it’s snorted or smoked.
“It depresses the immune system. It decreases the person’s ability to fight off infections. It’s not unlike HIV,” Syd said.
The rare rotting skin cases were first diagnosed at San Francisco General Hospital two years ago.
Syd said the complications don’t discriminate between recreational and habitual users. Doctors at the Waddell center have posted warnings to the staff, bracing for a rise in cases of rotting flesh.
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