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Island Health issues alert over carfentanil in Port Alberni

Carfentanil more deadly than fentanyl: Hasselback
Doctor Paul Hasselback is the medical health officer for Island Health.

An increase of opioid overdoses in the Alberni Valley have recently been occurring, says Island Health Medical Health Officer, Paul Hasselback.

Island Health issued an alert for drug users on March 31, stating that the deadly opioid carfentanil was detected in drugs in Port Alberni recently.

“We have received reports that there was an increase (of overdoses) occurring in Port Alberni,” Hasselback said. “The alert was issued just for the Port Alberni community, it wasn’t supposed to be widely spread, it was only for Port Alberni.”

Since November, Island Health has seen an increase across B.C. in fatalities associated with overdoses.

“We started seeing carfentanil on the Island back in November of last year. Occasionally we get situations where communities are reporting increases in numbers of overdoses or particularly tragic outcomes,” Hasselback said. “If there’s enough information, with or without laboratory confirmation, we may issue an alert to reach out to the user community just to say that it appears that there’s a batch of product that has come into the local area, and essentially that’s what occurred in Port Alberni. We do have reason to suspect that carfentanil was involved but it may not be the only reason why the alert needed to be issued.”

Hasselback said Island Health typically obtains laboratory drug tests and reports from several different places.

“The police may get some product, and they may get that tested and that may take some time to return. If there’s a fatality, the coroners get involved and they do some testing,” Hasselback said.

He said Island Health and a few private labs also have some capacity for laboratory testing to determine if the opioid is identified in certain substances, whereas the police and coroner can tell a bit more about how much of the drug is found.

Carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is used to tranquilize large animals.

“Carfentanil is one of what we call the fentanyl analogues, so it’s really the basic fentanyl structure with something else a little bit different,” Hasselback said. “The relative potency or toxicity of carfentanil is much more than it is for fentanyl.”

Hasselback said there is not yet enough information to truly compare the two products.

“What’s more problematic is when [carfentanil] needs to be mixed in such small quantities. The (drug) labs don’t have really sophisticated mixing equipment, so it may be that somebody buys some of that product and they get very little and someone else buys it and they get a fatal amount or a toxic amount that leads to a significant overdose,” Hasselback said.

In 2016, there were 57 overdose deaths in the Central Island (Cowichan, Lake Cowichan, Ladysmith, Nanaimo, Qualicum and Alberni) and 914 overdose deaths in B.C.

Hasselback stresses that when using drugs, people should always make sure someone is available with a Naloxone kit—medication that reverses the effects of an overdose from opioids—to intervene if an overdose occurs.

He also mentioned that having an overdose prevention site in town would be beneficial to drug users.

“That overdose prevention site provides for users a place where they can go where someone else can be watching them,” he said.

“We find far too often that overdoses are still happening in private residences where no one was around at the time when the person was using.”