HALIFAX — Nova Scotia has had its first suspected overdose death linked to carfentanil, the province's chief medical officer of health said Wednesday.
Dr. Robert Strang said the potent opiate is suspected of contributing to the death of one person in Halifax, though the formal cause of death has yet to be determined.
He said he couldn't release the name, age or gender of the person who died in March.
Strang said if the death is confirmed to be linked to carfentanil — originally developed for veterinarians to sedate elephants and other large animals — it was likely present in one of several street drugs the person involved had taken.
"Like in many of the deaths, there were a number of substances that were involved. ... But carfentanil has been identified as one of those substances," he said.
"Given the high potency of carfentanil ... it's highly likely it at least contributed to the death in this case."
Strang had announced just under a year ago that the drug was circulating in the province, and he said Wednesday it would be not overly surprising to see it contributing to fatalities.
There have also been cases of the drug appearing in the street drug trade in neighbouring New Brunswick.
"It's part of what I call the toxic street drug scene. It's not surprising we have this first possible death ... We've been anticipating this," he said.
Strang says it's a good time for him to remind any users of street drugs of the extreme dangers associated with their use, and he advised people who use the drugs to keep a supply of naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug that can be self administered.
The doctor said the province will keep building up harm reduction efforts, such as making naloxone widely available at community pharmacies.
The recent provincial budget added $1.4 million to create models for safer consumption of street drugs.
Strang said if a person insists on using street drugs it's better they do so with other people present, a supply of naloxone nearby and that they be prepared to call 911 if there is any risk of overdose.
He emphasized that under legislation police will not arrest people who call for emergency help if they are near a person having an overdose.
Carfentanil is especially dangerous, as it can be mixed in with other street drugs and therefore is hard to detect visually.
It is about 100 times more powerful than the opiate fentanyl.
In March of last year, Nova Scotia announced initial steps in its effort to head off a British Columbia-style epidemic of opioid overdose deaths.
Funding was provided for about 5,000 free naloxone kits through police, jails and community pharmacies.
Three community-based organizations that distribute clean needles and information to drug users are being funded to educate and assist their clients, and have been training clients in the injection of naloxone.
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Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press