Battling damaging fentanyl myths

Some myths can cause hesitance to using life-saving measures

From countering myths and misperceptions to stifling stigmas, health experts say a major part of battling a relentless overdose crisis, driven in large part by fentanyl, involves making sure the right messages are getting across.

With fentanyl slipping evermore present into the illicit drug market, it is a major driver in a skyrocketing number of fatal overdoses in the province. Marcus Lem, B.C. Centre for Disease Control (CDC) senior medical advisor on opioids, addictions and overdoses, said going from a little-known medical tool to one of the province’s greatest demons can affect the public perception.

“There’s a lot of fear and concern regarding exposure to fentanyl, but a lot of these fears and concerns are overblown, and there’s a lot of inaccurate information out there,” Lem said, noting in particular fears of first responders overdosing from contact with an overdose victim.

“We don’t really have any verified accounts of these. First of all, we know that for reversals of the overdoses, using naloxone, there are tens of thousands of resuscitations have happened … and we never had one single verified account of somebody overdosing from coming in contact with an overdose victim.”

With so many deaths resulting from fentanyl in all social stratas, Lem said fear is driving the spread of misinformation, adding that there’s a “lack of good information” accessible to the public.

“Consequently, although at B.C. CDC and other public health organizations, we’re doing our best to try and change that, in the absence of that, often the vacuum is filled with misinformation,” Lem said. “We’re trying to put out some of the basic messaging.”

That messaging is four major points that the CDC is trying to drive home: Street grade fentanyl does not become airborne, fentanyl is not easily absorbed through the skin, there have been no cases of overdose in health-care workers, first responders or citizens responding to an overdose victim in thousands of resuscitations B.C.-wide and there hasn’t been any evidence of fentanyl in illicit marijuana. Despite many claims of fentanyl-laced marijuana, the RCMP have said they have never seized any.

Lem said while there’s little risk in resuscitating an overdose victim, there’s a major risk incurred by the proliferation of myths involving first responders overdosing through skin contact or airborne fentanyl.

“The big danger of this misinformation is fear will lead people to not provide life-saving care to folks, which include artificial respiration or breaths and naloxone,” Lem said.

By extension, Lem said further damage can be done when society stigmatizes overdose victims.

“In some ways we make the folks who are overdosing, essentially we make them untouchable. We make them a class of people that, ‘no, you can’t touch that person,’” Lem said. “Is there anything more stigmatizing than saying they are untouchable?”