CBC Investigates

Better drug overdose tracking needed in New Brunswick, doctor warns

An addictions specialist is warning New Brunswick to develop better monitoring of drug overdoses, as deaths from illicit fentanyl rise across the country.

The province is preparing for fentanyl “behind the scenes,” according to province’s top public health official

Fentanyl has been involved in at least 17 deaths in New Brunswick since 2011, data from the coroner shows. (Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office/The Associated Press)

An addictions specialist is warning New Brunswick to develop better monitoring of drug overdoses, as deaths from illicit fentanyl rise across the country.

Dr. Hakique Virani has watched the opioid overdose problem up close in Alberta, where a drug estimated to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl has killed at least 15 people so far this year.

"I would say this is the number one public health crisis in Canada," said Virani, who is a public health and addiction medicine specialist at the University of Alberta.

"I would also say this is the most dangerous drug safety crisis we've had in North American history. To me this is not a passing fad or trend."

Earlier this year, a CBC News investigation found that addictive prescription opiates have been involved in more than 70 per cent of fatal drug overdoses across the Maritimes since 2011.

CBC News is keeping a database of drug overdose deaths to track the issue across the region.

In New Brunswick, fentanyl has been detected in 17 drug overdose deaths since 2011.

The true number could be much higher. The drug overdose death data provided by the coroner is more than a year out of date.

Provinces need better, real-time monitoring of drug trends and deaths to prepare for what's ahead, Virani said.

"You can only imagine in public health what the hue and cry would be if tracking of Ebola or of pandemic influenza strains were months or years behind," he said.

"Pandemic influenza in Canada did not kill nearly as many people as the opioid crisis has."

While New Brunswick can't provide up-to-date data on what kind of drugs are killing people, police say they're seeing both prescribed and illicit fentanyl on the streets.

Const. Hans Ouellette said the drug is circulating in counterfeit Oxycodone pills and in patch form.

Health Canada has detected fentanyl in eight drug samples submitted to its testing lab by police forces in New Brunswick so far this year.

The lab detected fentanyl in only one drug sample in the province in 2015.

Province preparing for 'frightening' problem

Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health for New Brunswick, says it's crucial to have real-time monitoring of opioid-related overdoses. (CBC)
New Brunswick's top public health official says the province wants to be ready for the arrival of illicit fentanyl.

Dr. Jennifer Russell described the fentanyl problem, and the number of lives it's claimed in western Canada, as "frightening."

She said officials have been "working behind the scenes" in New Brunswick to figure out how to prepare.

But Russell couldn't offer specifics.

"I wouldn't necessarily say that we have an action plan," said Russell, who is the acting chief medical officer of health.

"I just know that at the meetings, we are discussing what needs to happen."

One of the topics on the agenda is how to better track overdose deaths, Russell said.

When asked if the province could eventually track drug overdose deaths the same way it monitors influenza, Russell said the province is in "discussions."

"We know it is an issue so we want to make sure we do whatever we can to improve that."

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