VICTORIA â€” The appearance of the deadly opioid carfentanil may explain the dramatic spike in overdoses in British Columbia, despite efforts to slow the carnage, the provincial health officer says.
Dr. Perry Kendall said as the number of overdose deaths climbed to record levels in November and December, officials suspected the synthetic drug normally used as a tranquilizer on large animals like elephants was to blame.
B.C.’s Health Ministry announced Wednesday a small number of urine tests conducted over a two-week period at drug treatment facilities across Metro Vancouver tested positive for carfentanil.
“It’s not good news, it’s confirmation of what we had feared,” Kendall says. “It means the drug supply has become considerably more dangerous than it was beforehand.”
The ministry says carfentanil can be 100 times more toxic than fentanyl, the drug at the root of the province’s overdose crisis.
The tests were done on 1,766 urine samples. Fifty-seven were positive for carfentanil.
Kendall said because the samples were collected from people already in treatment, the numbers may not be representative of what’s happening on the streets.
“It may under-represent the actual extent to which carfentanil is present,” he said.
There is no reliable way for people to know if carfentanil is laced with other illicit drugs, and the Health Ministry is urging users to follow harm-reduction measures, such as having someone sober present and carrying the opioid antidote naloxone.
Kendall said overdose prevention sites that have been set up in a number of cities become even more important in light of the increased risks.
He also urged occasional drug users who may experiment with substances like ecstasy to steer clear.
“You don’t know what you’re getting. It’s much more dangerous,” he said.
The drug testing is part of surveillance measures related to a public health emergency declared last April. There were 914 illicit drug overdoses last year in B.C., the highest number on record.
Kendall said the presence of carfentanil doesn’t change the way the province has responded to the crisis, but it does make matters more urgent.
Officials are working to create more options for treatment and make it easier to access, he said.
“It’s a little hard to imagine how we could be running any faster, to be honest, but we have to try.”
The ministry said it is getting weekly surveillance reports on carfentanil and police are giving priority to investigations into drug trafficking because of the overdose crisis.
The RCMP and China’s ministry of public security are working together to disrupt the supply of illegal carfentanil, fentanyl and other opioids coming into Canada.
British Columbia’s toxicology centre, which provides forensic analysis on overdose fatalities to the coroner, recently bought new instruments that are more sensitive and accurate in testing for carfentanil and other opioids, and regular testing is expected to begin next month.
The ministry said carfentanil was already found at the site of one overdose fatality in the province, but results are still pending on whether it was the cause of the death.
The total number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths for 2016 is expected to be updated in March, however, previous data shows the substance was detected in about 60 per cent of deaths between January and October.
Linda Givetash, The Canadian Press