Public health authorities in the Eastern Townships are asking frontline medical workers to flag any and all drug overdose cases they encounter, in the wake of the death last September of a Cowansville man from a carfentanil overdose.

Austin Rutledge, 25, died on Sept. 23 in Granby.

Rutledge is the first person in the region known to have died after taking the synthetic opioid, which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Carfentanil is usually used by veterinarians to sedate farm animals or large wild animals, such as elephants and moose.

"One grain of salt of carfentanil can kill you," said Dr. Mélissa Généreux, the head of public health for the Eastern Townships. 

Généreux is asking paramedics, nurses and doctors to flag any drug overdose to the regional public health authority.

Melissa Genereux

Dr. Mélissa Généreux, director of public health in the Eastern Townships, is asking doctors and other health-care workers to flag any drug overdoses in the region. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

The regional public health authority is also organizing a meeting on Feb. 9 to discuss the scope of the problem in the Eastern Townships.

The meeting will touch on topics including: 

  • The opioid crisis in North America, Canada and Quebec.
  • The situation in the Eastern Townships.
  • How opioid poisonings are being monitored in Quebec.
  • Access to naloxone, the opioid antidote.

Naloxone now free in Quebec

In November, the Quebec government made naloxone available free of charge to Quebecers, through 1,900 pharmacies across the province.

"We know that obviously in Quebec it's not as critical as in other provinces, but we don't have to get to that level," said Health Minister Gaétan Barrette at the time.

Pharmacists are authorized to provide a maximum of eight vials of naloxone, along with the syringes necessary to inject it to anyone who requests it. They will also be able to provide instructions on how to administer the antidote.

"If a person is witnessing someone overdosing, or knows someone who is, they can administer the drug," said Barrette.

naloxone

Health organizations in the Eastern Townships will meet Feb. 9 to discuss how opioids are affecting the region, including accessibility to Naloxone, a synthetic drug that blocks opiate receptors in the nervous system. (Radio-Canada)

The province will also keep a registry to document how much naloxone is given away as part of its program. The program, which has a budget of $200,000, will be re-evaluated every three years.

'A serious and growing opioid crisis'

The number of opioid-related deaths is on the rise right across Canada.

Canada's chief public health doctor, Dr. Teresa Tam, predicted in December that the number of overdose deaths would surpass 4,000 by the end of the year — far above the 2016 tally of 2,861 opioid-related fatalities.

The Public Health Agency of Canada report concluded at least 1,460 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in the first half of 2017 — a number that did not include all deaths in the first six months of the year from Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba.

The report recorded 140 apparent opioid-related deaths in Quebec in 2016, although data for those 19 and younger were not available, and only closed cases were available for the province. 

Two-thirds of all the apparent opioid-related deaths in Quebec, from January 2016 to June 2017, involved men.

"Canada is experiencing a serious and growing opioid crisis," the report reads. "Across the country, it is having devastating effects on families and communities."

With files from Claude Rivest and Radio-Canada