The overdose-reversing drug naloxone has been delisted by Health Canada and could be available without a prescription, if individual provinces sign off.
Health groups and advocates across the country have been clamouring for naloxone to be widely available in order to prevent deaths, following a flood of fatalities linked to street drugs containing the powerful opiate fentanyl.
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Health Canada issued a statement about the change on Tuesday following a brief consultation period that began in mid-January.
It has removed naloxone from the federal prescription drug list, which means it's now up to individual provinces to make it available without a prescription. That could take several months depending on how fast the provincial governments act.
The ministry said all 130 responses it received on the subject were in favour of the change. It said doctors, pharmacists and patient organizations were some of the groups included in the consultation.
The most common comment, said Health Canada, was "the need for a more user-friendly dosage form." Currently the drug is administered through injection — it said a nasal-spray form isn't yet available in Canada.
Naloxone can restore breathing within two to five minutes.
According to the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, there were 29 fentanyl-related deaths in 2009 across the country but that number spiked to nearly 900 in 2014.
Health Canada's decision on naloxone was met positively on Tuesday afternoon.
CPhA Welcomes Health Canada Decision to Revise Prescription Status of Naloxonehttps://t.co/sxVqSIGTKv— @GtownRx
Some, like Dr. Seonaid Nolan, who treats addicts at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital, says Health Canada should go a step further and allow the nasal form of naloxone to be made available over the counter.
"When it comes to using needles and syringes, that can be a little off-putting to some people," she said. "If we can bring forward the intranasal formulation, then I think that would be just another wonderful step forward."
Still, Nolan hopes people won't treat naloxone as a cure-all.
"There's also the need for ongoing addiction care, so these individuals who are using opiates still need to be seen for their underlying addiction and receive long-term treatment and management."
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that naloxone would be available effective immediately without a prescription. In fact, while Health Canada has delisted the drug from its federal prescription list, it's up to individual provinces to decide if and when naloxone will be made available prescription-free.Mar 23, 2016 2:58 PM PT