Health Officials Are 'Deeply Concerned' About the Spike in Fentanyl Deaths in Canada

As many as 655 Canadians have died between 2009 and 2014 from fentanyl overdoses, according to the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse.
August 15, 2015, 3:50pm
Photo via CBC

Canada's federal health agencies say they are "deeply concerned" about the rise in fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths, as traces of the powerful painkiller are showing up more and more often in street drugs.

As many as 655 Canadians have died between 2009 and 2014 from fentanyl overdoses, according to the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse.

In a joint statement released this week, Health Canada's chief medical advisor, Dr. Supriya Sharma, and Dr. Gregory Taylor, the chief public health officer of Canada, warned those who are prescribed the synthetic opiate — which is said to be 100 times stronger than morphine and 20 times as potent as OxyContin — to follow instructions of use closely and keep supplies in a secure place.

Stories about the drug's dangers and apparent rise in abuse appear in the Canadian media on a daily basis now, following a string of recent deaths in British Columbia, including that of a young Vancouver couple who left a toddler behind, and a teenage boy.

On the weekend, in Vancouver, police sounded the alarm about six suspected fentanyl-laced heroin overdoses in the span of a just an hour.

Related: The Fentanyl Death Toll Is Climbing in British Columbia

The epicenter, however, appears to be Alberta. Officials say there have been 145 fatal fentanyl overdoses so far this year in the province — 43 in Calgary alone, and most of those in suburban communities. There were 100 deaths in Alberta last year.

"When used incorrectly or abused, fentanyl in any form can pose significant health risks. Fentanyl is a highly potent drug and is many times more powerful than other opioid drugs. Abuse or misuse can lead to death, even in small amounts," warned Dr. Sharma and Dr. Taylor. "There's no such thing as a safe street drug. Even a small amount of fentanyl can have very serious consequences when not used properly. When you're dealing with a street drug, you have no idea how it has been made or what's in it."

Health Canada said it is working with provinces, territories and law enforcement to respond to the issue, and is also reviewing "on an urgent basis" the prescription-only status of Naloxone, an opioid overdose treatment.

Police have stepped up their efforts, too. On Thursday, investigators in Calgary announced they had charged a 27-year-old man with smuggling fentanyl from China. The bust happened after border officers at a mail center in Vancouver intercepted a parcel marked as a "muffler" last month. An officer discovered a white powder and drug testing confirmed it was fentanyl. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Calgary police raided a Calgary home and say they seized 122 grams of fentanyl in powder form, which is estimated to be worth $348,000.

They believe it could have produced about 17,000 tablets, which retail for about $20 a piece.

"What we are dealing with is a drug that's not locally produced; it's imported, and we need the help of our provincial, national and international partners to deal with it," Staff Sgt. Martin Schiavetta, of the Calgary police drug unit, told reporters on Thursday.

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