To address Canada’s growing opioid problem, a public health manager is advocating for easily accessible naloxone.
Ian Reich, public health manager of population health, sexual health, harm reduction for Grey Bruce Health Unit (GBHU) is advocating for Ontario to have more naloxone kits available to reverse opioid overdoses. The area had 1,521 opioid-related deaths in 2019 alone.
“I would like to see all municipalities, counties, schools, colleges, arenas, beaches, and public spaces have naloxone available,” Reich said. “Anywhere there is an AED machine, there should be naloxone and EpiPens for allergies.”
Opioids slow breathing or, in the case of an overdose, cause it to stop entirely. If naloxone is administered, respiratory function can be restored, and it can save a person’s life. Naloxone can either be injected or given as a nasal spray. If the public had more access, Reich argued, the few fragile minutes before first responders arrive could mean all the difference between life and death.
“It is a life-saving tool. If we can easily provide life-saving services to individuals, we should. If you are trained in CPR, you offer it,” Reich said.
GBHU tracks opioid-related cases by tallying emergency room visits by patients with Grey Bruce postal codes, and visits to emergency departments in Grey Bruce hospitals. The health unit’s data shows from July 2019 to July 2020, there were six emergency department visits due to opioid poisoning per month by area residents. In 2019, Grey Bruce saw 16 opioid-related deaths.
“There has been a steady increase in opioid overdoses since the early 2000s,” Reich said. “What we are seeing locally is identical to what we are seeing all throughout Canada and the world.”
Reich said street drugs such as heroin, which is often laced the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl, are primarily to blame. However, prescription drugs have also been the culprit in some of these cases. Some other commonly misused opioids include morphine, methadone and oxycodone.
“We must also understand that accidental ingestion of opioid medication happens. Anyone that has opioid medication at home should also ask for a naloxone kit,” he said.
GBHU launched The Naloxone Program in August 2015, a program supported by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. It offers both naloxone kits and training for free. In an effort to make the overdose reversal drug, also known as Narcan, more available, GBHU dispensed 1,869 kits directly from public health units and 148 were dispensed through expansion sites in 2019.
Many participating pharmacies will give out naloxone for free without a prescription and pharmacists can provide training on how to use the kit. However, not all pharmacies have the kits available. Ontario’s community-based programs will also distribute kits to clients and clients’ loved ones. Reich encourages everyone to pick one up as a preventive measure, even if they think they’ll never use it.
“You never know when you may be in a position to save a life,” he said.
August is overdose awareness month, and Reich provided a statement to kick it off, saying, “It is rather ironic and painful that we are starting off Overdose Awareness month with so much hurt and loss. Our goal for August is to ensure that we spread messages directly from the source – from people that have experience with substance use, and its associated harms. We must always remember that this illness can afflict anyone, at any time, and we need to make sure that the general population understands that addiction does not care who you are – it can affect anyone at any time.”