Seventy people died of opioid overdoses in Nova Scotia in the first eight months of 2016, a spike being attributed to the early impact of the highly addictive painkiller fentanyl.
The province’s chief public health officer issued the figures Friday, saying he’s particulary concerned about a sudden spike of 10 deaths from the highly addictive painkiller fentanyl that occurred between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1.
“We’ve had some very tragic cases, of young people … that have died of overdose death in Nova Scotia,” said Dr. Robert Strang.
“Each of those is a tragic loss of life and a significant waste.”
Strang said while there isn’t widespread use of fentanyl yet in Nova Scotia, the study is prompting his office to urge a “pro-active response” as the use of drug spreads from British Columbia and Alberta into the eastern provinces.
READ MORE: Fentanyl 101: The facts and dangers
The B.C. Public Safety Ministry, citing the latest numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service, said Thursday there have been 555 illicit drug deaths from January to the end of September this year, compared with 508 deaths for 2015. Fentanyl was detected in more than 60 per cent of the 2016 deaths in B.C.
Dr. Gus Grant, the registrar and CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, said the figures from the West are dire – and provide a warning to the East Coast.
“Five hundred (deaths). That’s a couple of planes going down. That’s an extraordinary number,” he said in a telephone interview.
“I don’t want to be alarmist, all I can say is this: I don’t know any reason why Nova Scotians should think that we will have an experience different from that of B.C. It’s not like our demographics are meaningfully different, that we can comfort ourselves by saying it’s not going to happen here.”
Grant and Strang will join senior leaders from Nova Scotia’s health and justice departments and others for an Oct. 28 summit to discuss better co-ordination and both short and long term responses. Strang said he’s been asked to develop recommendations for the government.
Nova Scotia currently has methadone clinics, needle exchanges and crack kits, but Strang said it also needs to consider safe injection sites and similar types of harm-reduction measures.
Any solution should include longer-term measures to address the root causes of addiction, including mental health treatment, Strang said.
“If all we do is focus on preventing the overdose but not look at broader issues around treatment, around harm reduction, working with young people around the root causes of addiction, then we will have failed,” he said.
Strang said the former Harper government saw drug addictions as a criminal justice issue, but that has changed under the new Trudeau government.
Next month, the federal and Ontario health ministries will co-host a national opioid use summit.
“Can you imagine the hue and cry that would go up if a new illness claimed 70 lives a year?” said Grant of the Nova Scotia figures.
“The scope of the problem is huge. The appreciation of the scope of the problem is not clear enough. And the problem’s only going to get bigger.”