OTTAWA — Manitoba Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said the grim news that three more people in Winnipeg died by overdosing from a drug, likely fentanyl, adds to his alarm at the growing problem of the lethal drug in the province.
Goertzen said Wednesday he is still awaiting further details of the events which took place in a northwest Winnipeg home overnight. Winnipeg police found the bodies of two women and a man in the home on Petriw Bay, along with white powder, believed to be the drug fentanyl, and some drug paraphernalia.
"I am concerned, I continue to be concerned," Goertzen said.
A joint Canadian Institute for Health Information-Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse report released Wednesday said an average of 13 people are treated every day in Canadian hospitals for opioid overdoses. That data is based on 2014-15 statistics, and the crisis has grown to what's been called an epidemic across the country. Goertzen said what he is hearing from front-line responders is that the problem in Manitoba continues to get worse.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that experts contend is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Another powerful opioid used primarily by veterinarians tending to large animals — horses and elephants, for example — called carfentanil is appearing as a deadly street drug on its own and has been found in heroin south of the border. The drug is also prescribed for pain control in cancer patients.
Goertzen said he worries too many people aren't aware of the dangers surrounding opioid abuse. He said an enormous amount of education is needed, as well as federal government-led policies to document the problem, report overdoses and cut down on the amount of illicit fentanyl and carfentanil making its way into Canada from abroad.
Goertzen heads to Ottawa with Dr. Elise Weiss, Manitoba's chief medical officer of health Friday for a two-day national conference on the opiates crisis. On Friday, experts from across the country will share information about their experiences, with particular emphasis on those from British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, where the problem is the worst.
On Saturday, health ministers and medical examiners will sit down with federal Health Minister Jane Philpott behind closed doors to take what they learned Friday and turn it into meaningful action.
Philpott said earlier this week there will be an outcome document at the end of the Saturday meeting with specific measures governments and other agencies will undertake. They could include guidelines and additional training for doctors who prescribe the powerful narcotics, as one example.
"It’s going to be a response that will require a huge number of organizations coming together," she said.
Goertzen said Manitoba needs to improve data collection on overdoses, noting it is behind other provinces. He said he would like to see a national standard to help ensure all provinces are looking at the problem the same way.
He also wants more federal help to stem the flow of drugs from overseas and restrict access to equipment used to turn powdered fentanyl into pills.
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Wednesday that the Canada Border Services Agency is looking to improve its ability to detect fentanyl in the postal stream.
Manitoba is also working on improved distribution of naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses, which can save lives in some cases. Goertzen said availability in Winnipeg is OK, but improvements are required in rural areas. Those changes will be made through the regional health authorities in the coming weeks, he said.
Goertzen said he wants to roll out that new plan in conjunction with education to ensure people don't think having naloxone available is a safety net for opioid abuse.
"That message has to get out there," he said. "We don't want to give the impression there is some safeguard to this."