Alberta's health minister is vowing that her department will do more immediately to warn the public about the dangers of fentanyl as medical experts say more Albertans could die this year from abusing the potentially deadly opiate than from car accidents.
The province's medical authorities have declared fentanyl Alberta's leading public health problem, and Health Minister Sarah Hoffman told The Globe and Mail she is assembling leaders from provincial and municipal agencies and First Nations for a roundtable on the drug. She has also directed the chairs of a review of the province's mental health and addiction services to send her interim recommendations on fentanyl immediately.
"I don't think Albertans understand the risk well enough yet, but I think it's important for parents to talk to kids, and for kids to talk to each other, as well as staff and people they trust in their schools and community," Ms. Hoffman said in an interview with The Globe.
Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, and was developed to treat extreme pain. The pills on the streets of Alberta's major cities are mainly illicit tablets made by organized crime. Police say the pills are easy to make, readily available and cheap. Due to the haphazard conditions in which they are pressed, many contain amounts far above the lethal dose.
The province's health authority has posted stark notices over the past year warning Albertans about the dangers of abusing fentanyl, but more will be done, Ms. Hoffman said.
"We need to make sure that we use every avenue that we can to increase awareness and have another outcome at the end of the day," she said.
A graph showing the increase in emergency room visits over the past year due to fentanyl would be a vertical line, Hakique Virani said. The drug is toxic at amounts as low as two milligrams and can kill the average person in less than 15 minutes. It can create a sense of euphoria, but users can also quickly begin to slip in and out of consciousness and have trouble breathing. In the first half of the year, 145 Albertans died from using it.
"Based on exponential growth in the number of deaths involving fentanyl, about 400 Albertans are expected to die from fentanyl overdose this year," said Dr. Virani, who specializes in addiction medicine and teaches at the University of Alberta.
Dr. Virani said fentanyl deaths will likely surpass the number of fatalities from traffic collisions. According to the Alberta Ministry of Transportation, 369 people died in car accidents in 2014.
The Alberta government provides an antidote known as naloxone and has asked the federal government to make it available over the counter. Alberta's opposition parties have charged that Premier Rachel Notley's New Democrats have responded with indifference as deaths increased rapidly.
Some people want safe injection sites to help combat overdoses, but Ms. Hoffman said that would happen only after she talks with communities.
"We need to take evidence into consideration, and if we're going to make decisions around harm-reduction in a way that might impact a community, we have to do it in consultation. I've always been a big advocate of doing things with and for the people who have given you the opportunity of representing them," she said.
Along with increasing public awareness, Ms. Hoffman has vowed to increase access to harm-reduction programs, improve addiction services and work with police to reduce the supply of fentanyl.
Staff Sergeant Martin Schiavetta, head of the Calgary police drug unit, announced on Thursday that three suspected fentanyl traffickers were arrested on Nov. 19. Some of the 61 tablets seized were sent for analysis and found to be three times the lethal dose. "Obviously fentanyl is posing a significant health risk," he said.