'Very toxic' fentanyl circulating in Oxford County: officials

The health unit for Oxford County and Woodstock police are warning of "toxic" fentanyl circulating in the community after a spike in overdose calls during the last few weeks.

Officials with Southwestern Public Health issued a public health opioid advisory for the county this week after receiving reports of non-fatal poisonings from multiple community partners.

Health officials said the overdoses are related to a "very toxic" fentanyl — an opioid up to 100 times more potent than morphine — that has required multiple doses of the naloxone medication that reverses overdoses.

"We wanted to put an alert out there for those experiencing addictions as well as other community partners who may not be aware of this particular toxic supply of fentanyl, and that there might be additional need or demand for naloxone," said Ninh Tran, medical officer of health at the health unit, which also serves St. Thomas and Elgin County.

"We are finding, when we have particularly toxic products, they are more dangerous. They require a lot more naloxone than needed to respond to an overdose, and sometimes naloxone isn't successful because of how toxic the drug supply is," he said.

Health officials said the fentanyl circulating in the community is blue and beige, though any colour has the potential to be toxic.

Woodstock police said their officers and other emergency crews had administered as many as eight doses of naloxone at 10 different overdose calls since Feb. 13.

"We encourage everyone to become familiar with the signs of an overdose and consider getting a free naloxone kit at participating pharmacies," police said in a statement this week.

If someone has an opioid overdose, health officials say to call 911, administer naloxone, which may take more than one dose, and stay with the individual until paramedics arrive.

Oxford residents can get a free naloxone kit through Southwestern Public Health and several local pharmacies, which can be found online at www.ontario.ca/page/get-naloxone-kits-free.

The opioid supply in Oxford and Elgin counties has become increasingly toxic in the last five years, Tran said, as opioid-related deaths also have risen.

The health unit reported 43 opioid-related deaths between 2017 and 2019.

The region saw that same death toll in only half that time, between April 2020 and March 2021, representing 20.5 deaths for every 100,000 people. That's higher than Ontario's opioid-related death rate of 18.7 per 100,000 people.

"In 2021 and 2022, we had over 40 opioid-related deaths per year. So we are talking about close to one death a week," Tran said.

"That is very fragile, where you get a supply that is twice as toxic, and that number can go up," he said.

Southwestern Public Health recently launched a feasibility study to determine if drug use and treatment facilities are needed in Elgin and Oxford. As part of the study, health officials are asking residents to share their input in a survey that closes Tuesday.

The survey is about "exploring their perceived need for a consumption service," whether they have concerns, questions or want to comment on their support, Tran said.

The survey can be completed at www.swpublichealth.ca/cts. Those needing support completing it can contact ctsf.study@swpublichealth.ca or call 1-800-922-0096, ext. 1323.



Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press