Overdose prevention kits in Hamilton saved lives, 116 times

Since 2014, naloxone kits have saved lives 116 times in Hamilton. Now the city is looking at how to distribute them wider.

Since 2014, naloxone kits have saved lives 116 times. Now the city wants to expand that

Hamilton Public Health has distributed about 500 naloxone kits since 2014, officials say. It's saved someone's life 116 times. (CBC)

A drug that stops overdoses has saved lives 116 times in Hamilton in the last two years. Now local public health officials are looking at how to spread that program even farther.

Naloxone is a drug that often stops people from overdosing from fentanyl and other potent prescription opioids. Experts say Canada has a growing opioid crisis.

I see addictions face to face in my ward.- Matthew Green, Ward 3 councillor

Public Health already distributes naloxone packages to people it thinks might need it. But Hamilton's board of health voted this week to look at expanding that program. It will also urge the federal health minister to hurry up and approve a nasal spray version of the anti-overdose drug.

Matthew Green, a councillor for Ward 3 in the central lower city, called for this. He's had several friends die from suspected overdoses – including one in the last two weeks.

Green describes his push for broader naloxone distribution as one of the most important things he'll do in politics.

"I see addictions face to face in my ward," he said. "I know how it affects people. I know how it affects the families of addicts."

By prescribing opiates, Canada is "prescribing addictions to people," he said.

Public Health distributes naloxone through the Take Home the Naloxone program, said Dr. Jessica Hopkins, Hamilton's associate medical officer of health.

It's handed out about 500 overdose prevention kits since 2014, she said. It's saved a life 116 times.

With prescription opioid overdoses, the patient stops breathing. Naloxone can restore breathing within two of five minutes for a cost of about $48.

Green initially wanted police and firefighters to carry naloxone. But officers would have to inject the drug, which would trigger a Special Investigations Unit investigation if the person went to hospital. And Hopkins says it goes beyond the scope of what a firefighter does.

Instead, the city will urge Health Minister Jane Philpott to speed up the acceptance of naloxone nasal spray, which is easier and less invasive.

In Hamilton, opiate deaths make up more than half of all acute drug-related deaths in the city, the coroner's office said in 2014.

In March, Health Canada delisted naloxone so it could be available without a prescription. It's up to individual provinces to make it available in their jurisdictions.

In Ontario, it will be available without a prescription in late June, said Ministry of Health spokesperson David Jensen. It will still be behind the counter though, since a pharmacist will have to explain how to inject it into a muscle.

As for Health Canada, it's "committed to conducting the review of the nasal naloxone spray on an expedited basis," said spokesperson Suzane Aboueid.  It's also considering letting provinces that request it import bulk stocks of the naloxone nasal spray from the U.S. while Ottawa does its review.

A recent U.S. study shows that unintentional overdoses account for about 18 per cent of deaths among opioid users.

B.C. declared a public health emergency in April after the province saw more than 200 overdose deaths from fentanyl this year.