The recent influx of fentanyl into Manitoba has prompted some of the province's top police and health officials to speak out about the drug's dangers.

Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis, along with RCMP assistant commissioner Kevin Brosseau and Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, spoke of fentanyl's effects at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

"Something that started as a pain medication now presents a real and present danger to our communities," Brosseau said.

"Police and health officials across North America are wrestling with the public safety and public health threat of fentanyl, and it is dominating conversations by police leaders both in Canada and the United States."

Brosseau and Reimer said fentanyl, an opioid similar to morphine and heroin, can be up to 100 times more powerful and toxic than morphine.

As well, they warned that people using other street drugs, like cocaine, may be ingesting fentanyl without knowing it.

"There's no such thing as a safe drug, a safe street drug. Even a small amount of fentanyl can have devastating consequences. Frankly, you just don't know where it's made or what's in it," Brosseau said.

In the past month in Winnipeg, one person has died, four others have had non-lethal overdoses from fentanyl, and yet another needed hospital care.

Winnipeg fentanyl news conference

Dr. Joss Reimer, left, the medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, and Manitoba RCMP assistant commissioner Kevin Brosseau listen as Winnipeg police Chief Devon Clunis speaks to reporters on Wednesday. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

A Health Canada laboratory has since confirmed that the drugs in the fatal overdose contained a mixture of fentanyl and cocaine, Clunis told reporters on Wednesday.

Clunis cited Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse figures stating that there were more than 1,000 drug poisoning deaths in Canada involving fentanyl between 2009 and 2014. More than half of those deaths, he added, took place in the last two years.

"The largest increases were in the provinces to the west of us — B.C. and Alberta — but seizures of fentanyl by law enforcement has increased almost 30 times over between 2009 and 2014," Clunis said.

"It's important to recognize that we're seeing this trend move eastward across the country, and so I think it's very important for ourselves — as law enforcement, medical community, the community at large — to take notice and take some proactive steps before we find ourselves in a similar situation in Manitoba."

Drug-related deaths in Manitoba (2009-2014)
Drug Listed in cause of death Contributing factor
Cocaine 46 21
Fentanyl 29 6
Methadone 27 0
Codeine 23 13
Oxycodone 20 8
Hydromorphone 6 1
SOURCE: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Manitoba

'Not just a big-city problem'

Brosseau agreed that fentanyl is becoming an issue in the province, citing the recent overdoses in Winnipeg.

"The recent incidents to which Chief Clunis just spoke clearly show that Manitoba is not immune, despite the fact that at times we'd like to think that this sort of activity does not extend to our communities," he said.

"This is not just a big-city problem. It is for all our communities."

Reimer said local front-line health workers are starting to see fentanyl use appear where it was rarely seen in the past.

"So far our hospitals and addictions programs haven't seen any huge increases in fentanyl usage in Manitoba, but what we've seen in the west is that the numbers are increasing and we're anticipating that it will increase even more in Manitoba," she said.

She added that the provincial medical examiner's office has indicated that "probably the number of overdose deaths for 2015 is higher than previous years as well."

The health authority is working the with medical examiner to provide solid numbers to police, health-care providers and non-governmental organizations so they can provide support resources to those who need them.

Reimer said the WRHA wants to see naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of opioids, distributed to people who already use drugs in order to help prevent overdoses. She said the health authority hopes to have a program in place before the end of the year.

"What we're hoping to do is provide it free of charge to people who come to the regional health authority, acknowledging that they're using drugs, so that we can have it on hand when they're at home, when they're using, in case they overdose," she said.

Officials are also emphasizing prevention. Brosseau said individual Manitobans can do their part to curb the spread of fentanyl, especially as students head back to school this week.

"I would encourage parents to talk to their kids and ensure they know the dangers associated [with] this drug," he said.

"It's through those conversations and through our collective efforts that we will save lives and keep fentanyl and other illicit drugs away from our communities."


What to do if you see someone overdosing

Reimer has the following advice if you see someone having a drug overdose:

"If you do see someone having an overdose, please do call 911. And if you need to, provide rescue breaths for them," she said.

"If you can keep them breathing, you can probably save a life."

While the WRHA hopes to offer naloxone to drug users to help stop a fentanyl overdose, she added that naloxone is effective for only 15 minutes, so anyone who experiences an overdose or sees someone overdosing should still call 911.


Provincial services not always easy to access

The Manitoba government funds a range of services to help people coping with addictions, including detox beds, community-based treatment and primary treatment, which is the first stage of treatment after a person's withdrawal management is complete and includes residential programs.

However, those services aren't always easy to access. According to the province, somebody could wait days to get a detox bed in Manitoba. The wait to get into a primary treatment program could be even longer.

"On average I think, you know, if somebody was wanting today to access treatment, a primary treatment bed, they could be in within a few weeks," said Tina Leclair, executive director of the addictions policy and support branch with Manitoba Health and Healthy Living and Seniors.

Leclair said the province is working to enhance services, but admits the current system needs work.

"Certainly we acknowledge that no wait time would be best, and the system is not perfect as it currently stands," she said.

"I mean, there are some challenges, especially with wait times. We do all we can to make sure people can have access as timely as possible. If they are high-risk — for example, a pregnant woman — [they] will be prioritized so ideally there is no wait at all."

With files from the CBC's Alana Cole