'Worst drug-safety crisis in history': Opioid carfentanil claims 15 lives in Alberta
'You can be sure that opiates ... circulating in our illicit drug market are as toxic as they've ever been'
Carfentanil, the toxic opioid that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, is now linked to 15 deaths in Alberta and is circulating in the province, says the provincial government.
The first known death was in late summer. Since then there have been 14 more.
An Edmonton public health physician who treats patients with addictions says he's alarmed at the speed at which carfentanil has taken hold here.
"It lets you know that these extremely toxic [drugs] are circulating in the illicit drug market, said Dr. Hakique Virani.
"I think we can all expect to see more carfentanil-related deaths. This is the worst drug-safety crisis in history, clearly."
Virani, who is also a clinical assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Alberta, says most carfentanil users believe they are taking doses of less powerful opioids such as fentanyl or heroin.
"You can be sure that opiates that are circulating in our illicit drug market are as toxic as they've ever been."
Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Karen Grimsrud, echoed Virani's concern about the emerging drug.
"We've had fentanyl [deaths] for a while, we may now see more carfentanil as time progresses," Grimsrud said.
Carfentanil is commonly used as an elephant sedative. Grimsrud said in Alberta it is used on bison in Wood Buffalo National Park.
"For it to be used in humans, we're concerned about the toxicity," she said. " And a very minute amount that you need in order to have a fatality."
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Alberta is able to track these deaths because the chief medical examiner's office recently developed technology to test for carfentanil.
"We're one of the few places where this can be done," said Grimsrud. "So it gives us obviously concerning information, but information that helps us look at what kind of response we need to do for opioids."
Fourteen of the 15 carfentanil-related deaths in Alberta occurred between September and the end of November.
Seven of those who died were from the Edmonton area. There were five deaths in Calgary and three in small rural centres. The age range for all but two of the people who died was between 20 and 40. One was younger than 20 and one was older than 40. Grimsrud said those who died were mostly men.
Those who do take opioids should not use them by themselves or mix them with other drugs and alcohol, Grimsrud said. If you suspect someone is having an opioid overdose, don't wait to see what happens but call 911 right away, she added.