05/30/2013 02:57 EDT | Updated 07/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Fentanyl Overdose Deaths Prompt BC Warning After 23 Deaths

VICTORIA - B.C.'s health officer is asking emergency doctors and other health-care workers to be on the lookout for potential overdoses involving a powerful prescription painkiller.

The Health Ministry says numbers from the coroners service suggest that in the first four months of 2013, there have been 23 deaths as a result of people taking fentanyl compared to 20 deaths in all of last year.

The ministry says in a news release that fentanyl, which is primarily for cancer patients, is a dangerous opioid and people taking it might think they're using heroin or oxycodone.

Fentanyl can cause death, and the ministry notes the drug produces symptoms that mirror overdoses of other opioids but requires higher amounts of medication to treat the overdose.

The release says even handling fentanyl can be dangerous because it can be absorbed into the mucous membranes.

The ministry says Vancouver Police recently seized a large supply of the drug in connection with two overdoses, but that during a 2006 fentanyl epidemic in Chicago, 342 people died.