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Fentanyl deaths occur in Shuswap

Interior Health Authority sees 31 Fentanyl-related deaths so far this year.
Shuswap Lake General Hospital

Fentanyl has been implicated in the deaths of two people in Salmon Arm this year.

A report issued by the B.C. Coroners Service indicates that in the first five months of 2016, there were 188 deaths across the province due to the illicit use of Fentanyl – 31 of them in Interior Health.

Dr. Silvina Mema, a medical health officer with Interior Health, says  the number of deaths to all opioids in the health region totalled 64 at the end of June, two more than for all of 2015.

“That’s a huge increase compared to last year; we can see a spike everywhere in the number of deaths,” says Mema. “Last year, Fentanyl was implicated in 30 per cent of deaths (from opioid overdose) and this year it’s 60 per cent.”

RCMP Sgt. Scott Lachapelle confirms the Salmon Arm community has experienced drug-related sudden deaths in the past and most recently, specifically related to the drug Fentanyl and other illicit synthetic opioids.

“These are very powerful drugs, which are at least 50 times more potent than heroin, and are available in liquid and powder form,” he says. “They are lethal at very low doses – millionths of a gram – and can be easily and inadvertently absorbed through the skin and inhaled if proper precautions are not taken.”

He says, symptoms of exposure to Fentanyl are similar to those of an overdose and can include sleepiness, a slowed heartbeat, trouble breathing and trouble walking or talking.

For their part, Interior Health has been working on a response since the province declared drug-overdose deaths a public health emergency in April of this year.

“An order from the provincial health officer asked emergency departments to report opiate overdose data so we can track, not only the numbers, but the way specific substances were indicated,” says Mema.

Naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of opiates, is now available at Shuswap Lake General Hospital for patients who seek treatment there.

A new emergency department surveillance tool has been developed to improve overdose tracking. The forms will be completed whenever a patient who has overdosed or is suspected to have overdosed.

“In the past, the data we had on overdoses had significant limitations. It was not available in real time and was difficult to turn into timely action,” said Mema. “The introduction of this new surveillance measure allows us to identify where risks are arising and will enable us to take proactive action to warn and protect people who are at risk.”

People who use drugs can pick up a Naloxone kit at no charge at the Salmon Arm Health Centre, where they will be given directions on its use.

“The most important thing is calling 911; there is only so much Naloxone can do,” Mema says. “You still need to get help right away because the effects will wear off sooner than the opioid.”

Since April, more than 300 Interior Health staff members have been trained on how to give the kit and how to train people to recognize an overdose and how to use the kits.”

As well, Interior Health is working towards unifying all agencies within the health region.

“We’re working toward information sharing, trying to get all the pieces amalgamated,” says Mema.