The number of people in Alberta who died by accidentally overdosing on fentanyl in the first nine months of this year has exceeded the total number of deaths attributed to fentanyl in all of 2016, according to a new provincial report.
The Alberta government says 400 people died between January and the end of September by accidentally consuming fatal amounts of fentanyl, compared with 357 for all of last year. On average, 1.8 people have died every day from accidentally overdosing on opioids, which include fentanyl, in the province.
Alberta is among the provinces hardest hit by an opioid crisis that has killed thousands of Canadians.
Earlier this month, Calgary became the first city in Alberta to provide supervised drug-use services. The province approved five other sites in October, which are expected to open later this year or early in 2018. Four of those sites are slated for Edmonton and the fifth will open in Lethbridge.
Brandy Payne, Alberta's associate minister of health, said the province has not yet taken advantage of the federal government's offer to open temporary overdose-prevention sites because it is still waiting for Ottawa to roll out details. Further, Alberta has not identified other potential locations for supervised drug-use sites.
"We've heard from some other communities that might be interested in looking into it, but those conversations are in very early days," Ms. Payne said in an interview.
Still, Alberta does not plan to declare a public-health emergency, as B.C. did last year. The BC Coroners Service counted 914 illicit-drug overdose deaths related to fentanyl in the first nine months of this year.
Ms. Payne said the provincial Public Health Act is more suited for emergencies tied to serious communicable diseases such as influenza, Ms. Payne said. Similarly, Ontario rejected calls to declare a state of emergency in the face of the opioid epidemic.
"It is a different kind of emergency than we've seen in the past," Ms. Payne said. "It is not clear [B.C.'s declaration of a public-heath emergency] has done anything to help the situation there any more than the work we've been doing here."
Instead, Alberta created an opioid emergency-response commission and earmarked $56-million to address its opioid crisis this year. This includes the $30-million dedicated to funding the recommendations made by the opioid emergency-response commission. The commission, for example, recommended Alberta fund supervised consumption sites.
The federal government, in an announcement two weeks ago, said it would allow all provinces and territories to open temporary overdose-prevention sites while their applications for permanent – and better-equipped – facilities are being processed. Ottawa also said all supervised drug-use sites will be permitted to test illicit substances for contaminants such as fentanyl. This, officials hope, will help slow the death rate even as people continue to consume illicit drugs.
Fentanyl is between 50 and 100 times more potent than morphine. Just a few salt-sized grains can kill an adult. Alberta's opioid statistics also reflect a sharp jump in the number of deaths related to carfentanil, which is a member of the fentanyl family. Carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and used as a sedative for large animals such as elephants.
Alberta noted 44 people died of carfentanil-related overdoses in the third quarter of 2017, 23 in the second quarter, and 30 in the first quarter. By way of comparison, carfentanil was detected in 29 people who died by overdoses in all of 2016. (Alberta includes carfentanil-related deaths in its overall fentanyl tally.)