According to the Canadian Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use, there has been an average of one fentanyl-implicated death every three days in Canada in recent years. The study comes as a number of provinces struggle with the drug's growing prevalence among long-time and recreational drug users.

Matthew Young, a senior researcher and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, spoke with Rick Cluff, host of CBC Radio One's the Early Edition about a national effort to identify fentanyl-related overdoses.  

What were the major findings from this study?

In light of a lot of the overdose deaths we've been hearing, we really wanted to get a good count ... on deaths involving fentanyl in Canada.

We contacted coroners and medical examiners across Canada and found that between 2009 — 2014 there were at least 655 deaths where fentanyl was thought to be a cause or contributing cause, and over 1,000 drug poisoning deaths where fentanyl was detected in postmortem analyses.

We've heard in recent weeks that B.C. has seen a rise in deaths involving fentanyl. What other provinces have seen a significant increase?

There appears to be different patterns occurring right now. Anecdotal reports suggest the overdose deaths that are occurring in B.C., Alberta, and to some extent Saskatchewan are mainly due to this powdered fentanyl that is appearing on the market that's been pressed into pills, or is getting mixed up with other drugs. It's among individuals who don't necessarily know they're taking fentanyl and so when they don't know what they're taking, they're at much greater risk for overdose.

There's also an issue in Ontario as well, but it's unclear the role powdered fentanyl is playing because there's still a lot of misuse of the patch fentanyl there.

Your study appears to be the first to examine fentanyl-related deaths on a national scale. How well are health authorities across Canada keeping track of the impacts of this drug?

There's different regulations and customs for reporting across Canada so it's been very difficult to get national figures on drug overdose death. This is the first time information on drug overdose deaths have been pulled together at the national level.

The act of collecting this data and the media interest that these tragedies have garnered have highlighted to local health authorities the importance of this issue. I think we'll see a lot more initiatives towards common data collection in the future.

We've been hearing a lot about overdose deaths related to fentanyl, but in instances where the overdose is non-fatal. What kind of damage can fentanyl do?

Any overdose from any opioid suppresses breathing so you'll get a decrease in oxygen to the brain that can result in a whole number of injuries. A non-fatal overdose can still be very damaging.

We don't have very good data especially at the national level about the number of non-fatal  overdoses.

That does lead to the importance of naloxone. The widespread distribution and use of naloxone is key in trying to reduce the harm associated with fentanyl.

What do you hope health officials or police forces will take away from your findings?

Firstly, this is just the first accounting of the death tolls surrounding this drug. It gives us a baseline to look to see the effectiveness of any interventions. In addition, I think that pulling together this information has raised awareness about the issue — both among the public as well as people in public health across the country.

It will allow jurisdictions that may not have seen an issue with fentanyl thus far to be aware of it and maybe allow them to say we need to remain vigilant in case this issue comes into our jurisdiction and we need to make sure we have the right policies and practices in place in case in comes our way.  



This interview was condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: fentanyl-related deaths spike across Canada.