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Toronto police warn public about fentanyl after fatal overdose

Metro News logo Metro News 6 days ago Andrew Fifield - Metro

Toronto police say heroin laced with fentanyl is responsible for a fatal overdose in the city on Wednesday.: Toronto police warn public about fentanyl after fatal overdose © Fie Toronto police warn public about fentanyl after fatal overdose

Toronto police are warning the public after a fatal fentanyl overdose in the city.

Already considered a public health emergency for cities in Western Canada, authorities in Ontario have been raising the alarm about highly toxic opioids becoming more common in the province.

“We have an epidemic,” said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, the city’s medical officer of health. “The data’s showing it’s getting worse.”

Yaffe said there were 45 fentanyl-related deaths in Toronto last year, up from 23 in 2014.  

However, even a near doubling of fatalities doesn’t begin to approach the staggering numbers brought on by the opioids crisis in Western Canada, where other street drugs are frequently found to be laced with fentanyl.

By the end of November 2016, B.C. had already recorded 755 overdose deaths and 80 per cent of the drug samples tested at the city’s Insite facility came back positive for fentanyl.

Next door in Alberta, health officials say 343 people died from fentanyl overdoses, a 25 per cent increase over the previous year.

“In terms of morbidity and mortality, it’s way above anything killing people in the time I’ve been in public health,” said Perry Kendall, B.C.’s provincial health officer.

“The issue is, it’s not something that everybody thinks could happen to them, which is the difference between (opioids) and an infectious disease,” he added. “Something that terrifies us like Ebola or a pandemic.”

Deadly Drugs and an Online Black Market

Fentanyl is a highly toxic synthetic opioid that was developed for pain management purposes. Previous studies have found a link between “over-prescription” of painkillers and rapidly rising addiction rates, a link the medical community is acknowledging.

“I think the profession is waking up,” said Dr. Gordon Wallace of the Canadian Medial Protective Association. “I don’t pretend that we’re as far along as we need to be, but I think we’re waking up to this and we are trying to determine how best to do this.”

Aside from fentanyl, health officials say they are dealing with other synthetic opiods that are even more deadly. Among them is carfentanil, an extremely powerful drug that is designed to sedate large animals like elephants. Carfentanil, in particular, is so deadly that intelligence agencies have likened it to a nerve agent that could be used in a terrorist attack.

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Most the highly toxic chemicals arrive in North America via an online black market in China. However, just this week the Chinese government closed a major regulatory loophole that allowed carfentanil and other synthetic drugs to make their way to murkier marketplaces.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which is struggling to contain a growing opioids crisis in the country’s Midwest states hailed the move as a “game-changer.”

“It’s a substantial step in the fight against opioids here in the United States,” said DEA agent Russell Baer. “We’re persuaded it will have a definite impact.”

Risk To Emergency Responders

Police, paramedics and firefighters across the country are on heightened alert amid this public health crisis. Fentanyl and its cousins are particularly dangerous because they cannot be seen, smelled or tasted, and a tiny dose of just two milligrams can be fatal.

To keep such first line responder safes, many cities and provinces are equipping them with naloxone, a medication that can reverse an overdose brought on by opioids.

“Fentanyl and other opioids are incredibly dangerous even in small amounts,” said Manitoba cabinet minister Kelvin Goertzen, whose government has paid $30,000 to acquire naloxone kits.

“This measure will support the other important work underway in Manitoba.”

Toronto warned to ‘get ready’

Last month, politicians and public health officials gathered to address the threat posed by the spread of synthetic opioids.

Mayor John Tory, who says Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson warned him to “get ready” for a fentanyl crisis, used the meeting to push for action.

“It is not acceptable in our city, it is not acceptable in our country, that people who in many cases are suffering from a form of mental illness are dying in a lonely fashion without us doing everything we can…to prevent those deaths,” he said.

One step the city has taken is the approval of three supervised injection sites that will be funded by the province, but Dr. Yaffe wants more public education, both about the drugs and what to do in the event of an overdose.

“I think the bigger issue is getting people who are friends, family or users themselves to be educated and have access to naloxone so they can use it right away,” she said.

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