Carfentanil death toll rises in Ontario

Aug 22, 2019

According to Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. David Williams, the number of Ontario residents taking carfentanil and dying from it has undergone a “sharp increase” since the beginning of the year. Earlier in June the Ministry of Health sent a letter to public health organizations across Ontario containing a preliminary report on the number of carfentanil deaths in the province written by Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner. The report revealed 142 carfentanil-related deaths in the province from January to April 29, 2019, compared to 95 deaths for all of 2018, demonstrating a 50% increase in carfentanil-related deaths in 2019.

Carfentanil is a structural analog of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, with some studies showing it is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and 10,000 times more potent than morphine. Dr. Huyer’s letter said, “While carfentanil has been detected in Ontario previously, recent toxicology data suggest an increase in carfentanil presence in Ontario in the past few months.”

Williams also said that the data from urine tests, provided by LifeLabs, demonstrates that in 2017 and 2018, between zero and 100 people who performed urine tests with the operator tested positive for carfentanil. However, in April and May of 2019, this number increased to more than 700.

“All of this points to a drug that is very potent and is more dangerous than other opioid drugs”

Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner

In his interview with CBC News, Dr. Huyer said that investigations are complete in only 53% of cases involving carfentanil in 2019, meaning the drug could potentially be blamed for even more deaths.  “All of this points to a drug that is very potent and is more dangerous than other opioid drugs,” he said. “This is 142 individuals and each of those people lived a life and died and each of their family members suffered the tragedy of their loss, and no one should ever forget that.” 

The director of the Oasis harm-reduction program at Ottawa’s Sandy Hill Community Centre, Rob Boyd, said he has observed a correlation between the number of overdoses in Ottawa and the spike in the supply of carfentanil. “There’s definitely a direct relationship,” he said in his interview with the Ottawa Citizen. “The doses are changing constantly on people. When you don’t know how much of a drug you’re getting, that’s when you have a really escalated risk of overdose.”

The letter sent by the Ministry of Health also urged public health organizations to issue warnings to residents of their jurisdictions to inform them of carfentanil’s increased presence. It also contained recommendations to reduce the risk of overdose for drug users, including increasing access to opioid agonist treatments such as naloxone or methadone, carrying naloxone and knowing how to respond to an opioid overdose and using drugs in a supervised setting, such as a Consumption and Treatment Service.

Jennifer Ko, one of the staff members at the Moss Park Overdose Prevention site in Toronto, told CBC Toronto that reactions to carfentanil are noticeably more extreme. “From a worker point of view, we’ll notice that our overdoses are more intense… People’s tolerance have generally increased, but carfentanil is just that much more potent.”