Fentanyl overdoses in Alberta increased 118.4 per cent amid pandemic: U of A

Researchers at the University of Alberta (U of A) have found a correlation between increased visits to provincial supervised consumption sites and a decline in fentanyl-related overdose deaths.

The study looked at opioid response reports from the province and compared the number of fentanyl-related deaths from 2017 to 2020 to the number of visits to supervised consumption services.

When visits to the sites dropped because of the pandemic, researchers found deaths related to a fentanyl overdose increased by 118.4 per cent.

“The fentanyl problem isn’t going away,” Andrew Greenshaw, a psychiatry professor, said. “So we need to better understand how to support people.”

The study revealed opioids were found in more than 80 per cent of all drug-related deaths in Alberta. Fentanyl in particular was found to be involved in 94 per cent of those deaths.

“We need a patient-oriented or client-oriented approach to find out what’s of value in terms of their perspectives, and a very crude measure is reduction in overdose deaths,” Greenshaw added.

About 12 per cent of naloxone kits in Alberta are at its supervised consumption sites, according to the U of A data.

“It’s really an entry point into a system that can provide health support. There are referrals to treatment, naloxone training, housing support, transportation and much more,” Tyler Marshall, a U of A doctoral candidate in the department of psychiatry, said.

According to Marshall, supervised consumption sites not only offer access to medical professionals but they also provide people with addiction and a fear of judgement a place to go.

“Supervised consumption services are a good way to connect with some of this population that typically may not want to or be able to see a primary-care doctor,” Marshall said.

'IT'S KIND OF SEEN AS A MORAL ISSUE'

At this point, Marshall believes more peer-reviewed research is needed. Such research could include a more in-depth look at the availability of sterile needles or of staff who help people find housing. Greenshaw added it’s more difficult to determine which factors decrease overdose deaths without more information.

“If you really want to develop good investment for harm reduction, you need to investigate those other components and try to find out to what extent they are important,” Greenshaw said.

Both Greenshaw and Marshall agreed the recent data demonstrates a need in Canada for more addiction research to form policy.

“There’s a lot of debate around this,” Marshall said.

“It’s kind of seen as a moral issue rather than a health or disease issue, so we’re hoping to chip away at some of the stigma and discrimination.”