Yukon’s chief medical officer warns about lethal drug fentanyl

The Yukon’s chief medical officer has launched a new campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.

The Yukon’s chief medical officer has launched a new campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.

Two people in the territory are now known to have died from fentanyl-related overdoses. The first death was made public in April.

Fentanyl is a potent opioid drug primarily used to treat severe pain in cancer patients. But it is now showing up across Canada in street drugs, including fake OxyContin pills, and has been responsible for a rash of overdose deaths. The drug is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Brendan Hanley said two deaths in a population of 37,000 puts the Yukon at a similar level to many other jurisdictions in Canada.

“In terms of numbers per population, that’s really significant, so I am worried,” he said.

Hanley said he doesn’t know how many recreational drug users in the territory are taking fentanyl, or whether the number is increasing with time. He also doesn’t know what form it’s being sold in.

“It first appeared a few months ago, and there’s still evidence of it being here,” he said. “The information at this point is very limited.”

He said the Yukon typically sees about a dozen overdoses in a year that involve opiates, including morphine, heroin and methadone.

But he said one of the problems with fentanyl is that it’s used as a “filler” in various drugs, “except that it’s an extremely potent one.”

“It’s cheap to buy… it arrives in bulk form from China as a bulk powder,” he said. In Canada, the powder is pressed into pills or laced into injectable drugs like heroin.

Hanley is hoping to raise awareness about the presence of fentanyl in the Yukon.

“If you are going to use drugs, be aware that fentanyl can be in these drugs, that you should never use drugs alone, that you should know that you are using drugs with someone who is reliable and sober,” he said.

He also wants Yukoners to learn the signs of a fentanyl overdose, both in prescription and recreational drug users.

Those include sleepiness, slow or shallow breathing or snoring, cold and clammy skin, trouble walking or talking, and a slow heartbeat.

If you are with someone who overdoses, you should call 911 immediately and make sure the person is lying on his or her side to keep the airway clear, he said.

Hanley is also working on a pilot project to provide prescription and recreational fentanyl users with take-home naloxone kits. Naloxone is a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

The kits are currently being given out at the Blood Ties Four Directions centre and the Taiga Medical Clinic in Whitehorse.

Emily Jones, the harm reduction and wellness counsellor at Blood Ties, said the program is popular among recreational drug users.

“It’s really exciting because it’s creating a conversation that never really has happened before,” she said.

Jones believes many people don’t feel safe talking about their opioid drug use, and she hopes that will change.

“I’m hoping that a conversation about drug use becomes less taboo, because frankly, opioids are being prescribed to everyday citizens, not just the vulnerable,” she said.

Among her clients, she said, opioids are about as commonly used as crack cocaine.

Hanley said he hopes to see “a Yukon-wide deployment of take-home naloxone” in the next six to 12 months, which could require 500 kits a year.

Yukon RCMP officers have also been issued a naloxone nasal spray for use on officers who come into contact with fentanyl accidentally while on duty.

So far, officers have used the spray once on a member of the public, an RCMP spokesperson told the News by email.

Hanley said the Yukon will be launching a drug information network in the next few months, which will allow pharmacists to communicate about the prescription drugs their clients are taking. It will also give doctors a clearer sense of what their patients have taken recently in case of a medical emergency.

Hanley also said recreational fentanyl users should visit knowyoursource.ca, a national website with information about the drug. The website includes contact information for resources in the Yukon, including Alcohol and Drug Services, Blood Ties and Many Rivers Counselling.

Contact Maura Forrest at maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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