British Columbia

Fentanyl test strips need to get into the hands of users on the streets, says public health officer

A public health officer in Victoria says fentanyl test strips could save more lives if they were distributed outside of overdose prevention sites.

Currently the strips are only available at overdose prevention sites

Fentanyl tests strips are available at the overdose prevention pod at Our Place in Victoria. (CBC)

More than 1,900 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency nearly two years ago.

Over the last year, fentanyl was found in four of five overdose deaths. 

It's prompted health officials and service providers to seek new methods of harm reduction — including fentanyl test strips. 

The small, inexpensive strips have the ability to save lives by identifying the presence of deadly opioids in drugs. 

However, they're currently only available to those who bring their drugs to supervised injection and overdose prevention sites.

Grant McKenzie, left, the spokesperson at Our Place in Victoria and Dr. Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health officer at Island Health. (CBC)

The real value in the strips, according to Dr. Richard Stanwick, a public health officer for Island Health in Victoria, would be in getting people who are not clients of the overdose prevention site access to them.

"In terms of the Downtown Eastside, one out of 22 overdoses are fatals, versus one in nine in the surrounding communities ... so this really speaks to the coroners data where people who are not well known to our downtown service agencies are probably the ones at the greatest risk," said Stanwick.

Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, said the new Overdose Emergency Response Centre will launch five new regional teams across the province this January. 

The teams will focus on supporting people at risk of overdose, addressing the unsafe drug supply, expanding harm reduction services and increasing the availability of naloxone.

But it doesn't appear the plans include making fentanyl test strips available to the public.

Public distribution unlikely

The strips are unlicensed in Canada for use as an illicit drug test, so they can only legally be used at supervised injection sites and overdose prevention centres

Health Canada says it conducted a preliminary study on the drug testing strips and compared their accuracy to sophisticated laboratory tests. The department concluded that more research is needed.

In the meantime, Stanwick says they will continue to use the test strips at overdose prevention sites, such as the pod at the Our Place Shelter in Victoria, and they will gather as much information for future use as they can. 

"Who the clientele might be, certainly what some of their services needs would be ... what are the patterns of use."

"It's a great opportunity to gather intelligence. It's also telling us a lot about the potential need for intervention given the high presence of fentanyl and carfentanil," said Stanwick.

Strips proving effective in centres

Cam Craig, a paramedic at the overdose prevention pod at Our Place says they've had the strips for about a month now and they see about 200 people a day. 

When he spoke to story producer Liz McArthur for CBC Radio One's All Points West — he said 90 per cent of the drugs they test are positive for fentanyl.

Listen for the full interview with Liz McArthur, Dr. Richard Stanwick and Cam Craig:

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West