Manitoba

Meth use in Winnipeg causing outbreak of blood-borne illnesses, new documents say

The rising use of methamphetamine could cause more outbreaks of blood-borne illnesses, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority warns.

Health authority says province has shown 'lack of leadership' in preventing spread of communicable diseases

Winnipeg's health authority says the city is dealing with an outbreak of several communicable diseases because of a rise in intravenous drug use. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The rising use of methamphetamine could cause more outbreaks of blood-borne illnesses, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority warns.

The health authority's internal reports, obtained by the provincial New Democrats and given to the media, say rates of hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis and HIV are increasing dramatically, at least in part because of the prevalence of the drug.

One briefing note also describes a "lack of provincial leadership" in the prevention and control of communicable diseases.

"These documents show the meth crisis in Winnipeg is now becoming a public health crisis," Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Tuesday, referring to information found in a printout of a slide presentation on meth in Winnipeg, an email and briefing notes.

The current outbreak of acute hepatitis B is "almost exclusively linked to injection drug use," one memo says. The 40 cases reported since 2016 are nine times the number during the previous decade, according to the WRHA memo.

A significant rise in hepatitis C cases among people under age 25 is also connected to the injection of drugs, the memo says, while an unprecedented hike in syphilis rates appears to be tied specifically to crystal meth.

'A challenge for all of us': Health minister

"It means that this issue is not just affecting people who are addicted to methamphetamine, but also that it can spread … to the broader population," Kinew said.

More than 400 syphilis cases are projected in 2018 — compared to over 120 annually in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the WRHA said at a news conference Tuesday.

Nearly half of the people who contracted the illness had ingested crystal meth recently.

The WRHA documents say the current supports available to meth users are not sufficient.

There are no "clear, clinical pathways" to direct people suffering from psychosis, and the city lacks community-based resources and preventative programs, say the documents, which were obtained by the NDP under a freedom of information request.

People are welcome to their opinions, but they're not welcome to their own facts.- Health Minister Cameron Friesen

The health-care system cannot handle the number of mental health and acute care patients being admitted due to meth use, according to a WRHA document, which the health authority said was produced in August.

Present addiction treatment, the document says, is ineffective and often unavailable.

One briefing note says six beds the province added at Health Sciences Centre to deal with rising meth use were temporary treatment options that will be reallocated elsewhere, though it does not say where.

Health Minister Cameron Friesen says since that August briefing note, the government instructed those beds to remain in place.

"We don't need in Manitoba a freedom of information request received by the NDP … to remind Manitobans that we have a problem right now on methamphetamine," he said. "It's increasing rapidly and it's a challenge for all of us."

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the province knows blood-borne illnesses are a consequence of rising meth use, and the government is committed to addressing it. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Investments in the last few months, he said, include new walk-in clinics, a new medication that paramedics can give out and last week's joint $8.4 million announcement with the federal government to build more treatment beds and create mobile withdrawal teams.

Friesen argued his government has displayed leadership on the issue, and any assertion the "historical" briefing note makes to the contrary is an opinion held by a WRHA working group of community members.

The same document, though, describes its information as peer-reviewed and based on authoritative evidence. 

"People are welcome to their opinions, but they're not welcome to their own facts," Friesen said.

Province leading on meth treatment: WRHA

Gina Trinidad, chief health operations officer for the health authority, said the Manitoba government is now a leader on the file.

"Certainly," she said. "With the whole provincial strategy around the Virgo report on mental health and addictions, absolutely."

According to an internal email the NDP received, the health authority introduced a new crystal meth regional action plan in late October, with progress updates to be shared weekly with executives. 

In the same email, a WRHA executive requested that it be kept private.

Asked at a news conference if the health authority would make the reports public, Trinidad said the WRHA has already shared its broad priorities with the public.

Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew says a rise in blood-borne illnesses shows the meth crisis is becoming a matter of public health for more than just drug users. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

One of the documents the NDP obtained also said the WRHA was expecting a report this fall evaluating the need for a supervised injection site. Trinidad said the health authority is still considering such a site.

It's needed to help address the province's meth problem, Kinew said.

He suggests Manitoba also needs hundreds more treatment beds, where patients could stay for as long as a year.

Crime skyrocketing, Prairie police say

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Prairie police chiefs told a House of Commons health committee that methamphetamine is fuelling a crime wave in some of Western Canada's biggest cities.

Calgary's interim police Chief Steve Barlow told the committee that city's crime rate is going through the roof as the price of meth drops.

Drugs are a factor in almost half of police-involved shootings, Barlow said.

Calgary's interim police Chief Steve Barlow told a House of Commons health committee the city's crime rate is going through the roof as the price of meth drops. (CBC)

Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth said meth is causing a backlog in responding to other crime, because officers are tied up in health-care facilities with meth users.

Winnipeg police have seized more than 20 kilograms of meth this year — nearly double what was obtained the year before.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told the committee Ottawa must create a national strategy on illicit drugs, including meth, as well as strengthen border protection and provide more resources for mental health.

He's concerned that organized crime is shifting its energies to methamphetamine now that recreational cannabis is legalized.

"Our resources are stretched and, of course, we really do need the support of the federal government to help with mental health addictions and homelessness," he told the committee.

Kim Longstreet spoke to the Ottawa committee about the struggles she's endured loving someone who is dealing with a substance abuse addiction. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Kim Longstreet, an addictions advocate from Brandon, recalled the 11 years she watched her son slowly succumb to the world of drugs.

Although he used other drugs, she said no substance took hold of her son quite like methamphetamine. He's received treatment numerous times, but has always relapsed. 

"Every time I hear a siren or the phone rings at odd hours, I wonder if this is the call," Longstreet said.

"To some, this will make me sound like a terrible parent, but sometimes I do imagine that that call is the call, for which my son will finally have peace from the war that our society appears to be losing."

The rising use of methamphetamine could cause more outbreaks of blood-borne illnesses, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority warns. 2:37

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese reports from the Manitoba Legislature for CBC Manitoba. He previously wrote for the Brandon Sun and the Carillon in Steinbach. Story idea? Email ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Patrick Foucault and The Canadian Press