Fentanyl overdoses killed 113 people in Alberta during first 3 months of year

New statistics released by the province show that 113 people died from fentanyl overdoses in the first three months of this year.

The numbers show that the crisis in Alberta continues to grow in both size and scope.

By comparison, there were 70 fentanyl-related deaths in the first three months of 2016.

The latest statistics, released Friday by Alberta Health, show that 363 people in Alberta died from fentanyl overdoses in 2016. Those numbers reflect the most recent data available. In its update, Alberta Health said the numbers are subject to change because certification about the cause of death can take six months or longer.

The Alberta Health statistics report shows that fentanyl, 100 times more powerful than morphine, is by far the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in the province.

But deaths related to another, even more powerful drug, are also rising sharply.

Carfentanil, which is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl, was detected in 21 deaths in the first three months of 2017. That drug, commonly used by veterinarians to tranquillize large animals, was detected in 29 deaths during all of 2016.

Soon after the latest numbers became public, Alberta opposition parties renewed calls for the government to take stronger action.

"This is an issue where we have to start marshalling the resources of this province," said Wildrose mental health critic Mark Smith. "And one of the things that we could be doing that we've called for is declaring a public health emergency. They've done that in B.C. But mysteriously, we're not sure why the NDP seem to be very reluctant in calling a public health emergency.

"We need to start addressing this through many different areas, through a public health emergency, by making sure we've got our doctors and nurses trained to deal with this. We need to start attacking this with the seriousness in which the numbers in this report indicate."

Dr. Karen Grimsrud, the province's chief medical officer of health, said the Alberta government will continue with public education campaigns and will work to make sure that naloxone, a medication used to block the deadly effects of an opioid overdose, is easily accessible.

"Alberta has had a strong take-home naloxone program, but we could improve it and we are working to try to increase that access," Grimsrud said. "We continue to see too many people die from overdose deaths due to fentanyl and other opioids, so the questions we're asking ourselves is what more can we be doing?"

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann renewed his call for the province to declare a public health emergency to deal with the growing problem.

"We are starting to see the same trends here as in British Columbia, but without our government taking the same emergency measures," said Swann, a former medical officer of health in southern Alberta. "This is a mistake."

Swann also called on the province to reinstate the province's chief addictions and mental health officer. Dr. Michael Trew, a long-time psychiatrist, was appointed to that position by the Progressive Conservative government in 2013 to help deal with psychological assistance for flood victims.

His contract was not renewed in September 2015. At the time, Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the work to help flood victims had been largely completed and the position was no longer needed.

The Liberal leader also questioned the timing of the latest report on overdoses.

"I find it highly disrespectful to concerned Albertans to release such important information without formal commentary from the minister on a Friday afternoon, and, in this case, just ahead of a long weekend," he said. "It hints at an NDP government that is more concerned about biding its time, protecting its political skin, and avoiding accountability for a crisis that it clearly does not have a handle on despite its best efforts."

The statistics released Friday show that more than 90 per cent of the deaths in the first quarter of 2017 occurred in larger urban municipalities.

During that period, 51 overdose deaths were recorded in the Calgary health zone, and 36 in the Edmonton zone.

During a 15-month period, beginning Jan. 1, 2016, and end on Mar. 31, 2017, the province has averaged more than one overdose death every day.

In 2016, there were 443 overdose deaths in Alberta. Almost seven in ten, 68 per cent, were caused by fentanyl or another opioid.

The numbers further show that opioids and other drugs resulted in 9,037 emergency room visits in Alberta hospitals. That total represented 6,866 individuals.