PEI

Increase in P.E.I. fentanyl-related opioid overdoses and deaths a 'concern'

P.E.I.'s chief public health officer says the rise in accidental fentanyl-related opioid deaths and overdoses is a "concern."

Dr. Morrison tells MLAs 'broad approach' to harm reduction is required

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid considered to be more than 50-times stronger than morphine. (CBC)

The number of accidental fentanyl-related opioid overdoses and deaths on P.E.I. took a sharp rise in 2020.  Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison calls the numbers "of concern."

The numbers for 2020 are not complete yet, but as of Sept. 30, there were six accidental deaths involving opioids, of which three involved fentanyl. That's up from five opioid-related deaths in 2019, with none linked to fentanyl.

There is a three-month lag in reporting deaths because of the time involved in the investigations, she said.

In addition, there were 17 non-fatal opioid overdoses as of Sept. 30 and nine of those involved fentanyl. That's up from five overdoses for all of 2019, of which one involved fentanyl.

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid doctors say is 50- to 100-times stronger than morphine.

Dr. Heather Morrison appeared before the legislative standing committee on health and social development Wednesday afternoon. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

"Based on the numbers, we certainly have seen more overdoses that seem to have fentanyl involved in those overdoses and that's what has changed," said Morrison. "And so that's of concern."

Morrison was briefing the legislative standing committee on health and social development Wednesday afternoon.

We're looking at trying to protect everybody.- Dr. Heather Morrison

The CPHO gave an overview of the overdose situation and said those affected cover all age groups and are from across the province.

"I think it's important that we start addressing it, not just around opioids but a broader approach because we're looking at trying to protect everybody," said Morrison.

Since the province started tracking opioid overdoses in 2016, 29 people have died on P.E.I., almost evenly split between men and women, with more than half being between the ages of 40 and 59.

Also, since May 2017 there have been 56 non-fatal overdoses, of which 59 per cent were male, and most cases were in the 20-39 age range.

Morrison also told the committee more than 95 per cent of all cases involved a mix of opioids with other substances.

"Are we doing enough to address the root causes, and are we providing enough of those range of services from mental health and addiction, to pain management," said Morrison.

"It's really difficult to separate any of those aspects."

That's why, she said, a broad approach to harm reduction is needed.

'There's lots of work to be done'

Setting up safe consumption sites requires first talking to the community to find out what the needs are, and where they're needed.

The committee also discussed, connecting with those with lived-experience with drugs for their input, the needle exchange program and opioid replacement therapy.

Filling a position for a harm reduction co-ordinator will be a key piece in moving forward with overdose prevention plans, said Morrison.

"All will be needed if we're going to do this right," she said. "There's lots of work to be done."

Accidental Opioid-Related Overdoses and Deaths in P.E.I.
Year Non-fatal overdoses (# involving fentanyl) Deaths (# involving fentanyl)
2020 (to Sept. 30) 17 (9)  6 (3) 
2019 5 (1) 5 (0)
2018 24 (N/A) 8 (1)
2017 10 (N/A) 5 (0)
2016 Not Available 5 (1)

Source: P.E.I. Chief Public Health Office

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.

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