Nova Scotia must prepare for a potential wave of deaths due to illicit fentanyl, and must as a result be careful in addressing painkiller over-prescription, says the province's chief public health officer.
Dr. Robert Strang said Wednesday the linkage of the two issues was his prime take-away from discussions at the recent national summit examining Canada's opioid crisis in Ottawa.
Strang said while the problem hasn't reached Nova Scotia on a great scale yet, the effects of fentanyl being cut into street drugs such as marijuana and cocaine has put a strain on the emergency medical systems in B.C., Alberta and other provinces.
"It's certainly creating huge amounts of toll on families and individuals on avoidable deaths," said Strang.
He said Nova Scotia does have the "luxury of time" to learn from other provinces about how to deal with a problem that is gradually making its way east in Canada.
'A complex issue'
Strang said he talked to a B.C. colleague Tuesday and learned the extent of the problem on the West Coast: There were over 90 calls for overdoses over the weekend, with 13 suspected deaths.
"That's the scope of the urgency of the crisis and we have to be prepared to respond to a similar scale given our differences in population sizes, here in Nova Scotia."
Strang said it's also why the province must be careful not to drive people who get opioids through prescriptions to the illicit market, which could worsen the problem of overdose deaths.
"This is a complex issue and we need to work through both of these carefully," he warned.
Health Minister Leo Glavine said it's expected the federal government will be issuing new prescribing protocols for doctors in January.
Ottawa promises legislation
The two-day Ottawa meeting wrapped up last weekend with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott promising a number of pieces of legislation to address the growing opioid crisis.
Health Canada also committed to issuing an update on its opioid action plan by February and also promised to better inform the public about opioid risks.
Nova Scotia has recorded 49 fentanyl deaths this year, a growing figure that prompted a meeting between government and health officials late last month.
Seven working committees are currently studying issues ranging from increasing the availability of naloxone — the medication that reverses the effects of overdoses — to securing funding for non-profit addiction centres.
Working groups are also examining addiction treatment and physicians' prescribing habits.
'Get ahead of the problem'
Strang said action plans will be available in late January or early February.
Glavine said he came away from the Ottawa conference with an even greater appreciation for the depth of the crisis in Canada.
"We are dealing with a complexity here of an issue the like we have not seen," he said. "For us in Nova Scotia it's to get ahead of the problem and also address the levels of opioid misuse that we currently have."