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Cocaine 'body packer' syndrome can be deadly

By SHARON RUTENBERG, UPI Science Writer

CHICAGO -- 'Body packers,' smugglers who swallow bags of cocaine to elude customs officers, are poisoning and even killing themselves because the bags sometimes break, doctors say.

Bag breakage could lead to drug poisoning and death, University of Southern California doctors said Thursday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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Of 18 'body packers' reported in medical literature, 10 have died, a mortality rate of 56 percent. One survivor had swallowed 180 small bags.

Ruptured packets were found in the gastro-intestinal tract in four of the 10 fatal cases. There was evidence cocaine seeped from semi-permeable wrappings and was absorbed through the mucosa of the intestine, rectum or vagina in six cases. Death was attributed to acute cocaine poisoning.

Since 1980, there has been a 20-fold increase in body-packing among travelers flying from Colombia to the United States, said Drs. Marg M. McCarron and John D. Wood, now with the U.S. Air Force Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

McCarron and Wood studied 75 suspected cocaine body packers -- 63 men and 12 women ages 19 to 52 -- on prison wards of the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.

The current recommended treatment for cocaine body packers is surgical removal of the drug packages to prevent cocaine poisoning death, the doctors said.

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However, they described in the Journal a way to reduce poisonings by using X-ray shadows to determine the location and type of ingested packets. They said different packet wrappings require different methods of removal.

The packages ranged in number from 15 to 175. In most cases, they were in the colon.

'The foreign bodies, however, were widely dispersed throughout the bowel in some cases. We used mild cathartics (laxatives) to either group the packets for easier surgical access or cause them to be expelled,' the doctors said.

Each of the packages contained between 5 and 7 grams of cocaine.

'Fatalities have occurred after the ingestion of 1 to 3 grams of cocaine in powder form. Therefore, the rupture of one bag carries the risk of death,' they said.

A high-risk type of packet -- condoms, toy balloons or fingers of latex gloves -- was used in the 10 deaths and nearly 25 percent of those treated in the study. Some also used masking tape and what appeared to be fishing line.

'These packages are extremely hazardous as they are highly susceptible to breakage or leaching (seeping) cocaine,' the doctors said.

Other packet types -- multiple layers of tubular latex tied with a smooth tie at each end or with aluminum foil inside -- had less breakage and leaching.

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