WATCH ABOVE: Former Global News anchor Reg Hampton explains why he went public with his son Anthony’s story and a fentanyl warning for parents.
The mounting number of deaths and near-death overdoses related to fentanyl is causing concern in communities across Canada, but the narcotic is one that is used frequently for the treatment of pain.
Fentanyl has been showing up in recreational street drugs and people who think they are taking drugs such as OxyContin or ecstasy are suffering deadly consequences. In Alberta alone there have been 145 deaths connected to fentanyl so far this year and at least 66 deaths in B.C. where fentanyl was a factor.
Authorities say as little as two milligrams — an amount the size of a couple of specs of salt — can be fatal. And because it’s odorless and tasteless, most people who consume drugs laced with fentanyl don’t realize it until it’s too late.
But when used properly the opioid has many benefits for patients and is widely used on a daily basis, said Dr. Neal Davies, dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s a very potent opioid analgesic. It works quickly, but it doesn’t last that long,” Davies told Global News, adding it’s particularly effective as a pre-procedure analgesic or for “breakthrough pain” — the kind of pain that weaker painkillers can’t quite suppress.
Other common uses include the treatment of chronic pain, during endoscopies, oral and cardiac surgeries.
“It works for patients very well,” he said. “Used appropriately and managed well, fentanyl has its place.”
Fentanyl, he said, has been used since the 1960s but it became more frequently prescribed in the mid-1990s, in the form of a transdermal patch that got widespread use in palliative care.
The dosages in the patches are in micrograms and the drug is released into the system of a patient, who is already tolerant of opioids, over an extended period of time.
The patch is just one way to get fentanyl into a patient’s system, but it can also be administered via intravenous, intramuscularly, in a lozenge or spray and in a tablet.
According to law and health authorities in British Columbia, where just last weekend Vancouver police responded to six suspected fentanyl overdoses in one hour, the opioid is being cut into street drugs that are in pill, liquid or powder form.
READ MORE: Fentanyl 101: The facts and dangers
“Pills or powders containing illicitly-manufactured fentanyl are especially dangerous because there is no quality control or regulated manufacturing process. These drugs may contain toxic contaminants or have different levels of fentanyl in each batch. Even pills produced in the same batch may have little to lethal levels of fentanyl,” reads a warning on the BC Center of Disease Control website knowyoursource.ca.
Daniels said many deaths that occur from recreational use of drugs containing fentanyl — and with other prescription opioids that are used that way — are due “mostly to respiratory depression.”
Respiratory depression occurs when the number of breaths slows down to less than 12 per minute, according to the Florida-based Novus Medical Detox Center.
Opiates and opioids are Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants. The CNS controls our ability to breathe and keep the heart beating. When depressed too far by CNS depressants, these functions can slow down and eventually stop,” the Center explains on its website, adding that can end in death or leave a person with permanent brain damage.
That’s what happened to Anthony Hampton of Calgary last month. His father, CTV journalist and former Global News anchor Reg Hampton, came forward with his son’s story this week after the 18-year-old took what he thought was OxyContin. Police believe the pill he took contained fentanyl.
Anthony’s mother and step-father found him unconscious on July 17, not breathing and “turning blue.”
Hampton told Global News his son suffered “significant brain damage” but has been encouraged by some of the progress his son has made since being hospitalized more than three weeks ago.
While fentanyl can be administered safely when prescribed, there are adverse effects to be concerned about, Daniel said.
Those effects, he explained, can often include confusion, headaches, hallucinations, dizziness and weight loss. And like other opioids, it can be addictive.
The important thing to remember, he said, is that when a drug gets negative attention because of its misuse or adverse effects in some people, there is “a time and a place and conditions where they should be prescribed and need to be prescribed.”