Growing concerns about the illegal use of fentanyl has moved the Manitoba government to create a task force that will help raise awareness of the powerful synthetic opioid.
The province says is also supporting the development of program to distribute naloxone, a drug known to bring overdose victims back from the brink of death, to injection drug users and other high-risk opioid users in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's area.
Some of the province's top police and health officials have spoken out about the dangers of fentanyl in light of a number of overdoses in the past year, including a fatal overdose in August.
"We have a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all Manitobans," Health Minister Sharon Blady said in a news release Wednesday.
"We know that fentanyl has already destroyed too many lives in other provinces. The Manitoba government and its task force partners will not wait for the death toll to rise; we are acting now."
- Fentanyl a 'real and present danger' in Manitoba, police and health officials warn
- Winnipeg police make 1st major fentanyl-trafficking arrest
- Manitoba doctors being monitored for fentanyl prescriptions
- Worried about your teen and drugs? 5 things CBC asked Winnipeg police
Blady was joined by Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh and Healthy Living and Seniors Minister Deanne Crothers at an announcement over the lunch hour. They were also joined by Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical officer of health with the WRHA.
In September, Reimer and police officials said fentanyl, an opioid similar to morphine and heroin, can be as much as 100 times more powerful and toxic than morphine.
As well, they warned that people using other street drugs, such as cocaine, may be ingesting fentanyl without knowing it.
Parents want more support for overdose patients
Two Manitoba parents whose son died after overdosing on fentanyl said the task force is good news, but families also need to be brought in when their loved ones are dealing with overdoses and addiction.
"It is as dangerous as any weapon out there," said Arlene Last-Kolb. "Any awareness that we can bring to people, any bust that we can do, will save people's lives."
The power-lifter overdosed during a night out. His parents were called to the hospital at 1:30 a.m., but by the time they arrived, he was dead.
"Not a day goes by that we don't think about him – not an hour goes by," said Last-Kolb. "We didn't even know. I didn't know what fentanyl was. I didn't know what any of these drugs were."
The couple want to see better support for families.
Jesse had been hospitalized for an overdose before but was released still addicted, his parents said.
"I would love for someone to come in and say, 'OK, you know what? Your child or your family member is addicted to these drugs. Do you know about these drugs? Would you like to know what this is all about?" said Last-Kolb.
She said when people go to the hospital for overdoses, they should be treated the same way as someone suffering from other health issues, and their family should be brought in to help them recover.
"We don't even know how this went south on us," said Kolb. "Jessie never left here without hugging us or kissing us … It happens so quick."
$500K to be spent on province-wide response
The province says it is spending more than $500,000 to "to lead a co-ordinated province-wide response to growing concerns over the illegal use of fentanyl."
Part of that response will be the distribution of naloxone kits by the WRHA. The kits will be available for emergency overdoses, and offer training to opioid users as well as their families, friends and service providers.
The task force will launch a campaign raising awareness of fentanyl and offering safety tips for people who are currently using opioids. It will also look at "information-sharing protocols" to find ways to strengthen regulatory oversight and help police investigations related to opioid trafficking, the province said.
The task force will later focus on expanding support resources for opioid users by reducing wait times for drug assessment and addictions treatment and by working on a plan to distribute naloxone beyond Winnipeg.
As well, it will consider if there are ways to improve information gathered from health-care providers and law enforcement to quickly identify when new drugs are being trafficked or abused.