04/14/2016 04:03 EDT | Updated 04/14/2016 04:07 EDT

B.C. Public Health Emergency Declared After Overdose Deaths

Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team

VICTORIA — British Columbia has become the first province in Canada to declare a public health emergency after a dramatic increase in the number of overdose deaths from fentanyl.

Medical health officer Dr. Perry Kendall says there were more than 200 overdose deaths involving the drug in the first three months of 2016 and at that rate, up to 800 people could die by the end of the year.

Kendall served notice under the Public Health Act to exercise emergency powers.

Health Minister Terry Lake said the declaration will allow health officers to collect real-time information to help them quickly respond with prevention programs by targeting certain areas and groups of people instead of waiting for data from the coroner's office.

fentanyl canada bc

RCMP Cpl. Derek Westwick holds genuine Oxycontin pills, left, and seized fake Oxycontin pills containing fentanyl, right, during a news conference on Sept. 3, 2015.

"We have to do everything we can to stop this toll,'' he said. "This is a public health crisis and it's taking its toll on families and communities across our province.''

Fentanyl is an opioid-based pain killer roughly 100 times stronger than morphine. Recreational drug users may cut or manipulate a fentanyl patch or smoke a gel form of the drug.

The provincial government says overdoses are only reported now if someone dies, and there is some delay in the information being received from the coroner.

"This is a public health crisis and it's taking its toll on families and communities across our province.''

Under the measures announced Thursday, information on the circumstances of any overdose where emergency personnel or health-care workers respond will be reported as quickly as possible to medical health officers at regional health authorities. That information will include the location of an overdose, the drugs used, how they were taken, and the age and sex of the person who has overdosed.

Lake said B.C. has a history of leading the country with its harm-reduction strategies.

"We've always taken an evidence-based view, not an ideological view when it comes to harm reduction,'' he added.

Services include North America's only supervised injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a needle distribution and collection program and free dispensing of the drug naloxone to reverse overdoses.

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