Alberta fentanyl overdose deaths may plateau in 2018, commission reports

Alberta saw 228 fentanyl overdose deaths during the first 18 weeks of this year, but there is hope that the death toll may plateau, a commission tackling the opioid crisis reported Thursday.

Measures to combat opioid crisis are showing signs of working, commission co-chair says

"There's still very much to do," Dr. Karen Grimsrud told a news conference Thursday. (CBC)

Alberta saw 228 fentanyl overdose deaths during the first 18 weeks of 2018, but there is hope the death toll may plateau this year, a commission tackling the opioid crisis reported Thursday.

Of the 228 people who died of fentanyl overdoses between Jan. 1 and May 6, carfentanil was found in 66 of the victims, Dr. Karen Grimsrud, co-chair of the Minister's Opioid Emergency Response Commission, told an Edmonton news conference.

"While we are making some progress, there's still very much to do and there's families, friends and colleagues who are left grieving the loss of their loved ones," Grimsrud said.

"Although the most recent data suggests the number of fentanyl deaths may be plateauing since the beginning of the year, it's really too early to tell if that trend will continue."

The first 18 weeks of 2018 saw "significantly more" deaths than the same period of 2017, Grimsrud said. But there were fewer deaths in the first quarter of 2018 than in the final quarter of 2017.

"I think what's driving those numbers is the carfentanil piece of it," Grimsrud said.

'Quite a decline'

"If you look at the decrease in carfentanil [deaths] since the beginning of the year, we reached a peak in the fourth quarter last year — third [quarter] was high and then the fourth quarter was even higher, particularly in Calgary.

"And what we've seen since the beginning of the year in carfentanil is quite a decline."
Of 228 people who died in Alberta from fentanyl overdoses in the first 18 weeks of 2018, 66 also had carfentanil in their systems. (Lethbridge Police Service)

Factors could range from a decrease in the supply of illegal opioids, to improvements in treatment, Grimsrud said. More patients are in treatment and more naloxone kits have been distributed, she said.

"Our hope is that those two are having an impact."

Grimsrud and Dr. Elaine Hyshka, co-chairs of the Minister's Opioid Emergency Response Commission, provided an update on new recommendations and continued work at a news conference in Edmonton.

The commission is proposing six additional recommendations for Alberta Minister of Health Sarah Hoffman. One of the recommendations includes expanding opioid agonist therapy initiation in provincial correctional facilities. 

Another suggestion from commission members is to start a low barrier, oral hydromorphone distribution project. It would draw from a pilot project found in parts of British Columbia that distributes the pain medication. 

The commission was created in May 2017 under the Opioid Emergency Response Regulation in the Public Health Act. Its mandate was recently extended.

The commission's role is to oversee and implement co-ordinated actions on the opioid crisis. It is focused on harm-reduction initiatives, treatment, prevention, enforcement and supply control, collaboration, and surveillance and analytics.

In March, the commission recommended the province set up more overdose prevention sites — temporary solutions that can be federally approved with fewer requirements than safe injection sites.

Last November, the commission recommended Alberta bolster its programs that aim to reduce the growing number of people dying from overdoses. One recommended measure was to expand the distribution of naloxone kits. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose of opioids such as fentanyl, heroin, methadone or morphine.