Fentanyl deaths on the rise in Ontario, still lower than western Canada
Fentanyl pills are shown in an undated police handout photo. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams)
Fentanyl-related deaths are still rising in Ontario, though the province's chief coroner said numbers there aren't as bleak as those in western Canada, where the crisis originated.
Fentanyl has made headlines in the past year as the deadly opioid has become more widely available, and a tidal wave of overdoses has spread east from British Columbia.
Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer spoke from a training symposium held by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, where more than 450 front-line officers and border patrol agents are to be trained in the health and public safety challenges posed by the synthetic opioid.
Huyer said people with fentanyl in their systems accounted for nearly 30 per cent of Ontario's fatal opioid overdoses in 2015, based on the most recently available statistics.
At least 201 people accidentally died with fentanyl in their systems that year, including people who had consumed a combination of fentanyl and alcohol.
That's out of 700 total accidental opioid-related deaths, he noted.
But he said fentanyl isn't as pervasive in Ontario as it is in other provinces like British Columbia, whose government declared a public health emergency in April because of a dramatic increase in overdose deaths in that province -- many involving fentanyl.
Huyer said the drug depresses brain function, so when someone overdoses they lose energy, eventually drifting into a coma. Their breathing slows until they stop breathing altogether and die.
And in August, Vancouver police said they dealt with 16 fentanyl overdoses in one night.
Supt. Ron Taverner, chair of the association's substance abuse committee, said it's common for drug trends to start in British Columbia -- where many of the drug components are imported -- and then spread east.
In Alberta, there were 193 accidental deaths where fentanyl was involved between the beginning of 2016 and the end of October.
In the East Coast, the numbers are much lower. There have been 49 recorded fentanyl-related deaths in Nova Scotia this year, and in Newfoundland and Labrador there were five people who died of accidental overdoses with fentanyl in their systems.
Both provinces have recently warned that the numbers are expected to rise.
And as the deaths mount, so do the precautions.
Officers in Ontario are receiving more training on the drug, Taverner said, and are looking to implement methods used in British Columbia.
Across the province, antidotes to the drug are being rolled out so that first responders and people who are frequently around drug users can combat overdoses, Huyer said. But there's a drawback -- the antidote can be hard to deliver.
"Right now it's intravenous, which is tricky for people to do, because they have to put it into the needle and then inject it," he said. "But there's just now been an introduction of a nasal application as well, which is becoming a lot more available."
The epidemic is an intersection of public health and police work, said Bryan Larkin, vice-president of the OACP and chief of the Waterloo Regional Police. While the drug is largely spread through organized crime -- which is a matter for police to deal with -- the overdoses are a public health concern.
"We're not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic," he said.