Coroner links five Yukon deaths to fentanyl

Updated: Yukon’s coroner has been able to confirm five deaths in a little more than a year related to fentanyl, the deadly drug that killed nearly 600 people in British Columbia last year.

Update:

Yukon school principals are being trained on how to use naloxone a drug that can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose.

It’s part of an effort by the health and education departments to get more information about deadly drugs like fentanyl into Yukon schools.

“As graduation season is coming up, students need to know the danger of these drugs and how small of an amount can cause serious repercussions and often death,” Education Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said in the legislative assembly May 9.

The minister’s comments come as the territory’s coroner confirmed five deaths linked to fentanyl in just over a year.

Acting chief coroner Heather Jones said fentanyl-related deaths account for about five per cent of the caseload at the Yukon coroner’s office.

“Fentanyl is not a B.C.-only problem. It is a problem everywhere. It is in the Yukon now and it is killing Yukoners,” Jones said in a statement.

Last year in B.C. there were 575 deaths where fentanyl was detected either alone or in combination with other drugs.

The coroner anticipates the number of Yukon deaths could go up. It currently takes between four and six months to get toxicology reports back from Outside confirming whether someone had fentanyl in their system when they died.

“Part of the reason for that is that with so many fentanyl deaths in B.C. they’re expediting those cases which is putting the rest of us behind,” Jones said in an interview.

In B.C. the drug was detected in 139 overdose deaths in January and February of 2017. That’s a 90 per cent increase over the same period last year, Jones said.

McPhee said teachers at Vanier Catholic Secondary School have already received training on how to use naloxone.

They’ve also learned more about the drugs and their prevalence in Canada which will help them speak to students, she said.

“We’re encouraging conversation. Generally what the research shows is the best way to have kids engage in this kind of thing is just through straight conversations.”

The majority of principals from across the territory will learn how to use a naloxone kit at an administrators meeting May 11, said Chris Madden, a spokesperson for the Department of Education. Once a school has a staff member trained to use naloxone, it will get a kit.

Principals will also be hearing from health officials so they can pass information about opioids on to their staff.

In February the Yukon government expanded where Yukoners can pick up free naloxone kits, including at Whitehorse pharmacies and community health centres.

The Yukon health department gave out 412 kits. Of those 183 have been handed out to individuals, spokesperson Pat Living said.

Some drug users are seeking fentanyl, according to Catherine Elliot, the Yukon’s deputy chief medical officer of health. In other cases they might not know what they are taking. Fentanyl has made its way into street drugs, sometimes being disguised as Xanax or Oxycodone pills, she said

Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

“These are drugs that are manufactured in questionable circumstances. There’s zero quality control, there’s zero control around contamination and cross contamination with toxic and non-toxic substances,” Elliot said.

The Yukon deaths have been spread out over the last year.

If her office saw a cluster of deaths it suspected of being fentanyl-related, Jones said she would try to get the toxicology reports back sooner.

Yukon RCMP Supt. Brian Jones said he doesn’t believe the drug is being manufactured in the territory.

It’s too early in the police investigation to talk about where it might be coming from, he said.

“Initially it was about harm reduction, and making people aware that it was here, and making sure that people were doing the things that they need to do to protect themselves,” he said.

“We’ve worked with our government partners on that and now we’re actively transitioning into that investigating stage to learn more about it and see if we can put a dent in it.”

The opposition has asked whether the Yukon government will be seeking money from the federal government to help deal with opioids.

“Over the last several months, the federal government has been signing individual health transfer deals with the different provinces and territories,” said Watson Lake MLA Patti McLeod.

“In addition to the health transfer and all the money for home care and mental health, British Columbia received an extra $10 million to help address the opioid crisis in their province. Alberta also received an additional $6 million to help address the opioid crisis in their province.”

The Yukon government signed its health deal with the federal government. Yukon officials have said if other jurisdictions got a better deal from Ottawa there would be a chance to go back and alter the territory’s deal.

“Is the Government of Yukon currently in discussions with Canada to amend our health deal to ensure that we also receive money to address this important health issue?” McLeod asked.

Health Minister Pauline Frost didn’t specifically comment on the health deal.

She said “all options” are being looked at.

“Clearly this is not a Yukon-only issue and we are looking at ensuring that we have the necessary resources in place, whether they come from the federal government or from within our own budgets.

“We need to address it as a major crisis and we are, as expressed, working with the departments, First Nations and the health professions to address the crisis that we are confronted with.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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