Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, says that alerting the public to potentially fatal batches of hard drugs could end up being misleading. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

An alert system around bad batches of drugs could be misleading: chief medical officer

The average frequency of overdoses in Yukon emergency rooms is close to one per week

The Yukon’s chief medical officer says it wouldn’t be a “good idea” to alert the public to potentially fatal batches of hard drugs because it could be misleading.

“The implication would be that if you don’t give an alert, the drug supply is safe,” Dr. Brendan Hanley told the News. “Our messaging since April 2016 has been this is completely unpredictable.”

It would also imply that Yukoners are getting their supply from the same batch, he added.

Last week, the News reported that 15 people have died as a result of opioid use since 2016. Eleven of those incidents involved fentanyl.

According to Hanley, there have been 16 opioid-related deaths in the territory; fentanyl is associated with 12 of those deaths; of those 12, two died in 2018.

“There are situations where there are discrepancies in the count of fentanyl related fatalities, due to the delay in obtaining confirmation from toxicology,” he said in a written statement on Oct. 23.

The coroner waits for toxicology results before reporting a death.

Chief Coroner Heather Jones had told the News that it takes four months for the results to come in.

“In one (and possibly more) of the more recent deaths, we do not yet have that information,” Hanley wrote. “However, the clinical information is enough for us to conclude that there was a fentanyl related death even though this remains as yet unconfirmed by the Coroner.”

After question period, on Oct. 16, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost was asked by reporters whether the government is alerting Yukoners to unsafe batches of drugs via a public safety bulletin.

She had said: “I would say that we’re already doing that. We’re working to promote and get the materials out … we’re trying to hit the high-use areas.”

The News reached out to Hanley to get more concrete answers.

“Street level information” is used to get across the presence of fentanyl, he said, which can be “anecdotal.”

An example would be Blood Ties Four Directions, a Whitehorse organization that has a program testing for drugs laced with fentanyl.

“Obviously that’s not hard enough evidence to say ‘look there’s a bad batch of drugs,’ but it informs the probable continued presence of fentanyl on the streets,” Hanley said.

Jones told the News last week that, on a per capita basis, the Yukon ranks third across the country as having the most opioid-related deaths— first is British Columbia; second is Alberta.

On Oct. 18, Hanley provided the News with data showing the number emergency department visits as a result of overdoses.

Between January and May of this year, there were 26 visits, 17 of which were opioid-related.

“Overdoses involving opioids (including heroin and fentanyl) were most common, and accounted for more than half of overdose diagnoses between Jan-May 2018,” Hanley said, in a written statement. “Average frequency of overdoses is close to one per week.”

Hanley said the intent is to make information on emergency visits and deaths public.

“We have been doing a lot of work on just setting up these systems so that we can collect the data in a consistent way that also respects the individuals and families involved and that complies with privacy legislation,” he said. “This data is extremely sensitive in a small jurisdiction so we are very cautious in how we talk about it.”

Hanley said he could not provide a timeframe for when that would be happening or details concerning the timeliness of the information.

On Oct. 17, NDP House Leader Kate White tabled a motion that calls for regular updates showing confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths and overdoses.

“One of the things that’s not happening in the Yukon is that when there’s a suspected overdose, that information isn’t shared,” she told the News. “It means that anyone who’s got drugs at that point in time can’t make the informed decision as to whether or not to get them tested, to take them, to not take them. You can’t make an informed decision if you don’t know what’s happening.

“The government has nothing to lose by saying there’s a suspected overdose death. There can only be positive things about that, which is it would let people know that the drugs circulating on the street right now could be tainted,” White said.

Hanley said there are problems with releasing information about suspected opioid-related deaths and overdoses.

“I am comfortable with releasing a suspected death when it’s compelling information, in other words we’re very sure from the circumstances. I’m not so comfortable when there’s that grey area, when it could be something completely different,” Hanley said, noting that issuing identifying information could harm grieving families.

“We have to steer an approach that strikes a reasonable balance between providing the public with information that they should know, and I think we’ve been pretty progressive on that, and protecting individuals and families,” he said.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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