The Alberta Government recently released their third quarter Opioids and Substances of Misuse report and the numbers are staggering.
As of Nov. 27th, 2017, there have been 482 accidental drug overdose deaths related to opioids in 2017. This number is up 40% from 2016 which saw 346 deaths up until this time.
Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann said in a press release that a 40% increase is nothing short of a disaster.
“The NDP fails to treat this with the urgency and importance it deserves, choosing, instead to rely on a piecemeal, reactive response to this crisis,” Swann said.
Swann suggested that the government should reinstate a Chief Addictions and Mental Health Officer and declare a state of emergency to combat the crisis.
Associate Health Minister Brandy Payne said that opioids is an emergency unlike anything we have seen before, but declaring a health state of emergency would be ineffective due to the difference between a person to person pandemic and an addiction crisis.
“The tools we have to address a pandemic are not going to work here, which is why we have focused on the pillars of harm reduction, increasing access treatment, prevention using items like naloxone kits and education campaigns,” Payne said.
She also referenced the work being done by the Minister’s Opioid Emergency Response Commission, which is comprised of researchers, front line workers, social workers, medical specialists, law enforcement agencies and people who have been through the cycle of addiction.
“I think we are able to get a very strategic approach to how we are responding to the opioid crisis,” she said. “While MLA Swann wants to have one person in charge, I think the Commission is doing a fantastic job.”
Currently, there are 1.8 Albertans dying everyday in Alberta due to accidental drug overdose. There were also 2,793 emergency and urgent care visits related to opioids and other substances of misuse in the second quarter of 2017. Eighty-one per cent of the 143 third quarter deaths related to fentanyl and 74% of the 50 second quarter death of non-fentanyl opioid related deaths occurred within the larger urban centres of Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.
Payne said it is important that drug users in not only urban centres, but municipalities across the province have access to naloxone kits or other forms of treatments.
“One of the things we found in some of the larger cities is that we are seeing a higher rate of overdose in the inner city, but a higher rate of overdose death in some of the suburban or outlying communities. We think a big piece of that is people are not accessing naloxone kits or are not calling for help,” she said. “If something unthinkable were to happen, there is someone there to help you. If you even suspect an overdose, call 9-1-1.”
Payne added the government has been working with Alberta Health Services to ensure front line staff have access to the resources they need. She added they have also expanded access to detox beds.
“When someone is in hospital, there is also an opportunity to initiate conversations with them about supports they may need like housing, social work or referrals to opioid dependency clinics,” she said. “Someone can start treatment. For many people, right after an overdose is a good time to start a conversation about treatment and supports available for them.”
The Alberta Government, according to Payne, has also been working closely with municipalities to tailor their response to each community.
“We also have been working closely with harm reduction agencies such as Turning Point across the province to ensure they are able to support their members. They have been important partners in the take-home naloxone kit program,” she said.
A program that has found success in Central Alberta is telehealth treatment clinics, which opened in Central Alberta in April 2017.
“It has provided treatment to 130 clients from across the Central Zone. There is no waiting list for that program and they can treat up to 300 patients each year,” she said.
Payne added the Alberta Government will continue to work to alleviate the opioid crisis.
“As long as there are Albertans dying of preventable overdoses, we are gong to keep up this work and we will work to fight the stigma around substance abuse to make it so people are not afraid to reach out for help when they need it. At the end of the day, I think that is how we will turn the tide,” she said.