Ottawa's overdose task force switches focus to fentanyl

Ottawa's overdose prevention task force — originally formed in response to deaths connected to party drugs like ecstasy — has had to shift gears to confront the growing crisis of the abuse of opioids such as fentanyl.

Task force formed in 2014 in response to ecstasy overdoses

Ottawa's overdose prevention task force has switched its focus from party drugs such as ecstasy to opioids such as fentanyl. (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa's overdose prevention task force — originally formed in response to deaths connected to party drugs like ecstasy — has had to shift gears to confront the growing crisis of the abuse of opioids such as fentanyl.

"The task force has been working together for about two years now, and it started because of a large festival," task force member and Ottawa Public Health manager Andrew Hendriks told host Hallie Cotnam on CBC's Ottawa Morning.

"A young woman died from an ecstasy overdose at a large festival, so what we took upon ourselves at that point in time was to really go with public messaging, joint messaging around large events."

But in the last six months, that focus has shifted due to an increase in overdoses connected to opioids, including the powerful drug fentanyl. Hendriks said the task force has been closely monitoring the rising crisis in cities like Vancouver and elsewhere in North America, while working closely with emergency responders here at home.

"We know that paramedic calls have been going up for a couple years now. They've told us that they've seen a 75 per cent increase in overdose calls over the last number of years. We're hearing similar numbers from emergency room departments," said Hendriks.

'Not an easy discussion'

The most recent statistics show 48 unintentional overdose deaths in Ottawa in 2015. Two-thirds of those were related to opioids, and fentanyl accounted for a quarter of those opioid overdoses.

Ottawa Paramedics are briefed before their shift starts about fentanyl overdoses. (CBC News)

While officials try to track recent numbers to gauge the current impact of fentanyl on overdose deaths, the task force is working with community partners to raise awareness of the problem.

"It's really important to talk to your kids about drugs. It's a health issue. Stick to the facts," said Hendriks, who also manages the agency's sexual health program. "I kind of compare it to talking to kids about sexual health. It's awkward at first. It's not an easy discussion. There's no real script on how to do that," said Hendriks. 

"But kids and teenagers have told us that they want to hear from trusted sources of information. That includes schools, teachers, that includes parents, that includes physicians, nurses, law enforcement. So as long as everybody's saying the same message and talking about the facts, I think we're going to be better off as a community."

Listen to the full interview with Hendriks here.