Fentanyl-related deaths spark warning

Eight deaths reported in the Greater Victoria region so far this year.

Provincial health officials are warning of a potent prescription drug on the streets responsible for at least eight deaths in the Capital Region so far this year.

Fentanyl, an opiate used for pain control, is believed to be a contributing factor in 23 deaths across the province in the first four months of 2013, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

There were 20 deaths connected to the drug in all of 2012.

VicPD Const. Mike Russell said police officers have noticed a spike in fentanyl use in the city, and remain concerned when any new drug hits local streets.

“We are aware of its use,” he said.

Dr. Perry Kendall, provincial health officer, issued a province-wide warning to emergency room doctors and paramedics on Wednesday, after a meeting with the coroner’s office, police officers, public health officials and toxicologists.

“It’s a very, very, very potent narcotic,” Kendall said.

The Vancouver Police Department and RCMP are reporting a spike in clandestine lab production of the drug, usually in powder form, he said.

Matt Brown, Island regional coroner, confirmed eight deaths have occurred in the Capital Region, but said he can’t discuss specifics due to ongoing investigations.

“We have seen a regional increase (in the use of fentanyl),” he said, adding the province is facing a substance abuse problem with 200 to 300 deaths every year related to drug overdoses.

“We wanted to make sure the message was provided to the community and precautions were taken,” Brown said.

When prescribed, fentanyl comes in the form of a patch, releasing the narcotic over 24 hours into the patient’s bloodstream.

The street drug, however, can closely mimic heroin in its powder form.

“People are used to injecting a certain amount of powder, so if they inject the same amount and it’s half fentanyl or all fentanyl, then they run the risk of injecting a lot more,” Kendall said.

Emergency responders also need to be aware that fentanyl overdoses require a greater amount of the counteracting medication, naloxone, than heroin overdoses.

The B.C. Ambulance Service responded to more than 2,000 overdoses across the province in 2012, and more than 2,200 in 2011.

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Did you know?

Sometimes referred to as synthetic heroin, fentanyl is 80 times more potent than morphine (Source: European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Addiction)

• Fentanyl is normally used for intense chronic pain that cannot be treated by morphine or oxycodone, and commonly used in cancer treatment

• The drug is usually administered in patch or lozenge form, but can be appear as a white powder