Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Nova Scotia may start reporting on drug overdose deaths

CBC News spent several months compiling data on fatal drug overdoses in the Maritimes. Experts say the information should be easier to access.

Drug overdose data from Maritime provinces is hard to get and outdated

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, is preparing for fentanyl like any other possible disease outbreak. (CBC)

Public health officials in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are taking a closer look at drug overdose numbers as the Maritimes brace for a fentanyl crisis that has left hundreds of people dead across the country.

While fentanyl hasn't reached epidemic levels in the Maritimes, it has appeared in at least 32 autopsies across the region since 2008.

But none of the provinces can provide up-to-date figures on how many people are dying from fentanyl.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer, is approaching fentanyl as he would any other outbreak of disease on the horizon.

"What we're bracing for is this potential wave of high potency opioids, many of which are just mixed in with other drugs," Strang said.

"So people don't even know what they're taking, resulting in large numbers of overdoses."

People don't even know what they're taking, resulting in large numbers of overdoses.- Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer

If an outbreak happens, Strang said the province may start publicly reporting on the number of overdose deaths. That would help first responders and the public know what kind of drugs are on the streets.

'We're taking it very seriously'

In New Brunswick, the Department of Health will soon release a report with up-to-date figures on opiate drug deaths in the province, including fentanyl.

Dr. Jennifer Russell, acting chief medical officer of health, said she's been in discussion with other provinces and agencies like Ambulance New Brunswick to prepare for what could be coming.

"Because of what's happening in British Columbia, we're very aware of the situation and it's on our radar," Russell said. "We're taking it very seriously."

Until now, it's been difficult to know how many Maritimers are dying from drugs and what they're taking.

CBC News spent several months trying to build a picture of overdose deaths in the region, but none of the Maritime provinces publicize data on drug overdoses.

The data obtained upon request is outdated by months — or in some cases, years.

Experts say that's too little, too late.

"This is such a contrast to the way we monitor for other important, albeit less prevalent, forms of disease, like influenza and measles," said Michael Parkinson, who works to prevent drug overdoses in Ontario with the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council.

An unknown toll

CBC News has spent several months trying to figure out which drugs are killing Maritimers. Fentanyl, pictured here, was taken in 32 drug-involved deaths since 2008, but the toll could be even higher. (Canadian Press)

Public health agencies should be tracking the deaths and publishing numbers online across the country, Parkinson said. He believes it could help save lives.

Police agencies are also preparing for the wave of overdoses to head east.

RCMP in Nova Scotia recently got training on how to deal with the drug, while New Brunswick RCMP have reported seeing bootleg fentanyl hidden in counterfeit OxyContin pills.

Commissioner Bob Paulson released a national warning about fentanyl on Tuesday, promising to distribute Naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, to officers across the country. 

It would be smart and healthy to get ahead of the crisis before it really hits.- Michael Parkinson,  Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council

"I think it's important to remember that this is a new class of drugs that are extremely toxic and have real implications for first responders, for hospital emergency rooms and for the kind of interventions that are appropriate," Parkinson said.

"It would be smart and healthy to get ahead of the crisis before it really hits."

CBC News has built a database of drug overdoses dating back to 2008. It will be updated as medical examiner's offices provide new data.

An analysis of the database shows nearly 800 people have died from drugs during that time.

More than 70 per cent of those people took at least one opioid such as OxyContin or fentanyl.

Opioids are the most popular class of drug to appear on the database, surpassing street drugs like cocaine and ecstasy and other prescription pills like benzodiazepines and anti-depressants.

Much of the information is already out of date. New Brunswick could only provide drug overdose data for part of 2015 and nothing for 2016.

In Prince Edward Island, the coroner had to examine every paper file to say how many people died from drugs. The data is two years old.

Nova Scotia could provide some information for 2016, but it is already months behind.

No one tracking national overdoses

Debby Warren, executive director of AIDS Moncton, said drug monitoring must come with better access to addiction treatment. (CBC)

The problem isn't unique to the Maritimes.

Only British Columbia is tracking overdose deaths in almost real time.

That's because hundreds of people have died from overdoses in B.C. this year, prompting the government to declare a public health emergency.

It means doctors are required to report fatal overdoses to authorities, so first responders have a better sense of what they're up against.

That would be a welcome shift for Debby Warren, the executive director of AIDS Moncton.

Her organization sees hundreds of drug users looking for crack kits and clean needles every year.

Public health has structures in place for tracking communicable diseases already. Let's start looking at the drug overdoses.- Debby Warren, AIDS Moncton

Even though she's on the front lines of addiction, she didn't have access to the number of people dying from overdoses until she got the list from CBC News.

"It's a disease," Warren said.

"Public health has structures in place for tracking communicable diseases already. Let's start looking at the drug overdoses."

Two years ago, Julien Gould and his friend were found dead in a Moncton apartment after trying fentanyl. They are two of at least eight people to die with fentanyl in their systems in the Moncton area.

But Warren didn't have access to those numbers either.

The deaths of Gould and his friend should have been red flags, she said.

"How often has it happened around our province? Is there a pattern? That would have been probably a first step, is to say is there a pattern? And what can we do to address that issue?"

With files from Michel Corriveau of Radio-Canada