Nova Scotia

Increase in fentanyl deaths sparks justice, health summit in Nova Scotia

The province's deputy ministers of health and wellness, and justice are calling a meeting to respond to opioid overdoses that are claiming the life of a Nova Scotian every six days, and it's expected to surge with street fentanyl.

'We have to get them sheltered from the storm,' Dr. Gus Grant says of 60 Nova Scotians dying each year

Gus Grant says 70 Nova Scotians have overdosed on opioids this year. (CBC)

The province's deputy ministers of health and wellness, and justice are calling a meeting to respond to opioid overdoses that are claiming the life of a Nova Scotian every six days.

That rate is expected to surge with the rise in street fentanyl.

A government email leaked to CBC shows Nova Scotia has averaged 60 opioid overdose deaths per year for the last decade. That's the first time the province has put a number to the deaths from opioid misuse.

Since the early 2000s, the deaths are "mostly from OxyContin alone, or in combination with alcohol, benzodiazepenes and other prescription and/or street drugs," said the email.

70 deaths so far this year

But the death toll is even higher so far this year, according to Dr. Gus Grant, the registrar and CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia.

He said approximately 70 Nova Scotians have fatally overdosed. "Can you imagine another health crisis that took the lives of 70 young people? Can you imagine the impact that would have, and it's still only October?" said Grant.

The college, which governs the practice of medicine and disciplines doctors, is among the groups invited to a meeting Oct. 28 to "begin the development of a comprehensive health, justice and policing response to the likely increase in illicit fentanyl," said the email.

'Overwhelming' problem

Officials are bracing for deaths from fentanyl to become an increasing issue in the coming months. The email warned about the situation in British Columbia, which is experiencing a major increase in illegal fentanyl, and a public health emergency has been declared due to a dramatic increase in opioid deaths.

Grant has some ideas on tackling what he calls an "overwhelming" problem with an "alarming" mortality rate.

He said it starts with the medical profession acknowledging that it has contributed to the problem through over-prescribing opioid painkillers.

He's open to increasing access to opioid withdrawal treatments such as methadone, and the more expensive drug suboxone, which is covered for people under 25. 

Ontario recently announced it will increase access to suboxone as part of its first opioid strategy.

More addictions doctors needed

In Nova Scotia, there are 85 doctors prescribing methadone to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms. Grant said that's "almost certainly not" enough doctors working in addictions medicine and many of those doctors have waiting lists. 

He said there needs to be more counselling services to help people trying to break the cycle of addiction. And he said more work is required, through education and interventions, to prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place. 

Grant said doctors must follow strict guidelines when prescribing opioid painkillers. And he said doctors need better training in the area of appropriate treatment for pain. He noted that the risk factors that cause people to suffer chronic pain are the same for opioid addiction.

Shelter from the storm

And he called out the stigma and the judgement that have "unfairly marginalized" people with addiction, and have kept them from receiving necessary support and medical care, he said.

With thousands of Nova Scotians already addicted or dangerously involved with opioids, he's worried about the day when illegal fentanyl becomes a major issue in the province. 

"I just think we have to reach out to that community, not just the medical profession," he said. "We have to get them sheltered from the storm."