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Opioid Overdose in BC: Fentanyl on the Rise

In May 2013, the Provincial Health Officer advised emergency physicians, first responders, and other health care workers to be watchful for potential overdoses associated with the drug fentanyl. This was the result of a collaborative response between health officials, BC Coroner’s office, Vancouver Police Department, and the BC Drug and Poison Control Centre which posted an alert.

Opioids are a group of drugs that reduce the sensation of pain, but they also affect other necessary body functions such as breathing. If a person takes too much of an opioid, or if the strength of an opioid is higher than a person is used to, the opioid can cause a person’s breathing to slow or stop. This is called an opioid overdose and, if severe enough, a person can die from it. Naloxone is an antidote to an opioid overdose. 

Fentanyl overdoses are harder to reverse

In BC, there were 256 deaths due to illicit drug overdose in 2012, including from opioid overdose. This is less than in 2011 when there were 294 deaths from overdoses of illicit drugs. The greater number of deaths in 2011 was in part due to an increase in the purity of heroin on the street. Iillicit drugs are unregulated so the type of drugs and adulterants and potency are unknown.

This year, there has been a dramatic increase in overdoses in which fentanyl was detected. Between January and April 2013, there have been 23 deaths in BC related to fentanyl, more than the entire year of 2012.

What is Fentanyl?

Fentanyl is an opioid that is prescribed to treat chronic pain. Recently, reports from Canada and the United States indicate that illicit fentanyl produced in clandestine laboratories has been appearing for sale on the streets, sometimes sold as Oxycontin®, heroin or other substances. Fentanyl is more powerful than other opioids―roughly 50-80 times more potent than morphine―making the risk of an accidental overdose much higher. 

CCENDU DRUG ALERT: Watch out for Illicit Fentanyl across Canada

Opioid Use Still Common in BC

A survey of drug use among harm reduction clients in BC done by the BCCDC in 2012 found that 78% of people surveyed reported using opioids in the last 7 days.

Another survey, done in late 2012 by the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, found that 34% of street-involved adults and 19% of street-involved youth in Victoria and Vancouver reported using heroin in the last month. The number of British Columbians accessing methadone maintenance therapy has grown from about 8,000 patients in 2001/2002 to nearly 14,000 in 2011/2012.

Read the complete advisory on Opioid Use and Overdose in BC.

Opioid Overdose Prevention: education & naloxone distribution

The recently released Best Practice Recommendations for Canadian Harm Reduction Programs includes a chapter on opioid overdose prevention strategies, and how to appropriately respond in the event of an overdose (including the use of naloxone if available).

We have also developed an Overdose Survival Guide that outlines what to watch for and how to respond – tips that could save a life.

Overdose Survival Guide