How to get ahead of Winnipeg's fentanyl crisis? 'Treat the real problem,' advocate says

In his 15-year career working in addictions Ian Rabb says he has never seen anything that compares to the fentanyl crisis in Winnipeg.

'I've personally been affected by 7 deaths in the last 9 weeks,' Ian Rabb says

Police say the opioid problem is fuelling break and enters and vehicle thefts. (ALERT)

In his 15-year career working with addictions, Ian Rabb says he has never seen anything that compares to the fentanyl crisis in Winnipeg.

"It's been quite alarming and disturbing to me on a personal and professional level. I've personally been affected by seven deaths in the last nine weeks directly related to fentanyl use," Rabb told CBC News. 

Rabb, who is the founder of Two Ten Recovery, Destiny House and current business director of Aurora Recovery Centre, said the victims have been former clients as well as youth whose parents were trying to get them into treatment.

While he knows of seven people who have died, Rabb cautioned there are likely a lot more.

"Five people in the news in a week and I would suggest to you there are five more that we don't know about because not every one is reported or becomes public," Rabb said.

To curb the crisis, he said there needs to be more services available for people battling addictions.

"Drug addiction is a disease," Rabb said. 

Rabb said the people he knew who died had an opioid addiction and were fentanyl users, the deadly drug keeping families on edge. 

"I've dealt with a couple families in the past 10 days ... Both have lost one of their two kids to an overdose of fentanyl and are desperately seeking help for the second child, so they don't lose yet another child," Rabb said. "That seems to be a pattern of late that's somewhat disturbing to me." 

ER doctors seeing 'severe' overdoses

There has been an increase in drug overdoses this year, according to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.

Dr. Joss Reimer, a medical officer of health, said the number of young people aged 15 to 24 who have arrived in Winnipeg emergency rooms with severe overdoses this year has already exceeded 1,000 — the annual average.

Reimer said she suspects fentanyl and carfentanil are behind the swell.

"In particular we're seeing a lot more severe cases where people are coming in unconscious and not breathing," Reimer said, adding emergency room doctors are concerned about what that means. 

"First off, just because that's a lot more work for their staff ... but also because it means there's more going on in the community that's not making it to the emergency room."

It's unclear how many are a result of the deadly synthetic opioids but the WRHA is tracking the data on a go-forward basis, Reimer said.

Twenty people in Manitoba died of fentanyl-related overdoses in 2015 and the province's chief medical examiner told CBC News earlier this month he expects fatalities in 2016 will surpass that.

'Treat the real problem'

Rabb suggested the only way to get ahead of the crisis is to get to the root of it.

"Until we start dealing with the fundamental reasons why people use any drug or alcohol we're never going to have success anywhere," he said. "That means immediate services available for people that need help."

Unless families can cover the cost of private treatment, the wait for an assessment, detoxification and a bed in a recovery program in Winnipeg can range from several weeks to several months, Rabb said, adding it's an "impossible" situation for a vulnerable person. 

"I get 10 calls a day from people who are reaching out for help. The truth is, if there's not someone on the other end that can help them immediately, we are going to face more deaths," he said. 

"We're failing on so many levels. We have to come together as a province and make services more accessible and more available and treat the real problem."

Rabb said until the problem is addressed fentanyl will continue to claim lives. For those with addiction, the physical need for the drug often outweighs the fear of an overdose.

"People that want to go down, if they can't get their fix with hydro morphine, or oxycodone or any of those drugs ... are absolutely gyrating towards fentanyl use," he said.

About the Author

Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. She previously worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and as an associate producer for the CBC documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Email: