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New Zealand is not ready for a fentanyl crisis, Drug Foundation warns

A bag of fentanyl, which has been described as similar to heroin but more potent. Photo / Getty Images The NZ Drug...

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A bag of fentanyl, which has been described as similar to heroin but more potent. Photo / Getty Images

The NZ Drug Foundation says we are not equipped to deal with a fentanyl crisis but Pharmac claims the country has a “good coverage of [antidote] stock”.

Last weekend, 12 people were hospitalised over a 48-hour period in Wairarapa due to an overdose on the drug fentanyl. On Friday, a man in his 20s reportedly overdosed on fentanyl and was taken to Palmerston North Hospital.

It is the first time the drug has been confirmed to be in New Zealand.

Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm said the discovery of the drug in New Zealand is one of her “worst fears come true”.

All 12 people who were admitted to hospital were administered and responded well to the lifesaving antidote Naloxone. Helm said, “it is nothing short of a miracle that there have been no fatalities”.

However, she predicts without serious interference, it is only a matter of time before we see a similar crisis that has struck the United States, where more than 80,0000 people died last year from an opioid or fentanyl overdose.

Naloxone is not widely available in New Zealand, and only some hospitals and ambulances carry it. Helm said elsewhere in the world naloxone and fentanyl test strips are being freely distributed to people who use drugs, loved ones and community members, something which she advocated for in New Zealand.

Naloxone is available in two forms, injectable ampoules or a nasal spray.

Naloxone ampoules (the injection) are available prescription-only, which means they can’t be distributed widely to the populations who need them and in most cases are not funded by Pharmac.

An emergency kit containing two Nyxoid (naloxone) nasal sprays were approved for sale without a prescription in 2020. However, because it is not funded, at $92 it is out of reach for many people’s budgets. It is also difficult to source.

Helm claims New Zealand is in dire need of more doses of the nasal spray, adding she predicts we have about 100 doses left in the country.

Pharmac, which stocks New Zealand’s supply of Naloxone, said the country has a “good coverage of stock” for the injectable ampules given to ambulances and hospitals.

However, Pharmac said it does not purchase the over-the-counter nasal spray, so cannot comment on those stock levels.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Health said it is not responsible for purchasing the medication, but said it has been told there are no supply issues for Naloxone for emergency responders (injectable ampules).

They also could neither confirm nor deny Helm’s claims of the nasal spray shortage in New Zealand.

Given its extreme potency, fentanyl is extremely easy to overdose on and overdoses can happen rapidly, often before an ambulance arrives.

Helm said having naloxone in the community and people trained to administer it is the key to saving lives. Having an ample supply of the injectable Naloxone that can only be administered by a professional may not be enough to prevent a fentanyl crisis in our communities, she said.

Since last weekend’s overdoses, the Drug Foundation has given 45 doses to Wairarapa police this week to use if they are the first responders to the scene of an overdose. It is the first time police have carried Naloxone in New Zealand.

The Drug Foundation would also like to see all first responders equipped with naloxone – police, all ambulances and firefighters.

It believes if any emergency services arrive at a situation where someone has overdosed on opioids, having naloxone readily available could be the difference between someone living or dying.

Detective inspector Blair MacDonald, the manager for the National Drug Intelligence Bureau, said that the discovery of powdered fentanyl in New Zealand is of significant concern, due to the harm caused internationally by the synthetic opioid.

“Just one gram of pure powdered fentanyl is the equivalent of 20,000 safe doses of the drug,

“We do not want to see that type of harm occurring in our communities,” MacDonald said.

A spokesperson said police are working to determine the prevalence of the drug and its source, as well as train officers on how to deal with responding to an overdose.

“Our staff are not medical experts but officers in Wairarapa are working with the Drug Foundation to ensure they have access to medication to assist when responding to suspected fentanyl overdoses.”

Police said the drug was sold as either cocaine or methamphetamine, as it has a similar white powder appearance. The drug is highly potent and easy to overdose on and is believed to be behind a significant increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States.

Prince, pictured here during his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, famously died from an overdose of fentanyl. Photo / Getty Images
Prince, pictured here during his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, famously died from an overdose of fentanyl. Photo / Getty Images

In 2016, music legend Prince famously died from an overdose of fentanyl. After he was found dead in his home in Minnesota, tests revealed an inordinately high amount of fentanyl in his liver and stomach.

He was reportedly addicted to pain medicine after a hip injury in 2010. While he was not prescribed it, investigators discovered a bottle with 49 black-market pills that tested as part fentanyl. Experts believe Prince did not know the pills were laced with fentanyl.

In 2016, Auckland police discovered teens were importing hundreds of tabs of lysergic acid and a sheet of blotter paper with traces of fentanyl via the dark net.

Helm said it will be some time before the full scale of New Zealand’s potential fentanyl issue is apparent.

“It’s terrifying when we test these drugs, our worst fear is that it will be fentanyl, as we are not able to deal with it.

“Although I hope this is not the start of our own fentanyl crisis, it would be naive to think we have seen the last of fentanyl in New Zealand.”

Helm said in the meantime, there are steps people can take to help themselves or loved ones be safer with drugs. Fentanyl test strips can be purchased from either the Hempstore Aoteaora or through the local needle exchange.

The Drug Foundation also has free, legal and confidential drug checking clinics, where volunteers can see if their drugs are really what they think they are. People can find more information about this at www.drugfoundation.org.nz.

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