Paramedics across Waterloo Region will all carry a powerful life-saving drug antidote starting Monday following a spate of six opioid-related overdoses in just four days — including one that ended in death.
"When you call 911, you expect the most qualified help to arrive and that's what we're giving them now," paramedic services deputy chief Robert Crossan told CBC News.
All regional paramedic kits will now come equipped with naloxone, a drug that interrupts the effects of heroin, fentanyl, morphine and other opioid drugs. The move is part of a larger effort by the provincial health ministry that will see all EMS vehicles and more than 1,600 primary care paramedics in Ontario able to respond to opioid-related overdoses beginning Feb. 1.
One overdose death every 14 hours
The move comes after one fatal and five non-fatal overdoses were reported between January 23 and January 26 in Kitchener and Cambridge alone.
That prompted the region's integrated drug agency, OMARS, to issue an overdose alert with some alarming numbers. In Ontario, one person dies from an opioid-related overdose every 14 hours. In Waterloo Region, some 21 people died from overdosing in 2013.
But despite the spike in overdose-related deaths, Crossan, who has been an advance-care paramedic for the last 15 years, said the need for naloxone has been festering for some time.
"The crisis is here, it's been here for a while," Crossan said. "When I first started carrying it, it never came out of the drug pouch. It was almost never used, but now it's routine."
Reluctance to seek help
One factor that's exacerbated the problem is the scourge of opioid drugs on the United States east coast, making it difficult for non-prescription users to know exactly what is inside the street products they buy.
"If you're used to taking a certain amount and stronger stuff comes in and you don't know, before you can do anything about it, you've taken too much," Crossan said.
And because most narcotic use is in fact illegal, Crossan said oftentimes those at risk of overdosing are reluctant to call for help.
"Narcotic use is illegal in most cases and people are worried that, 'If I call, then everybody's going to come and I'm going to end up in jail,'" he said.
But prosecution isn't the aim, Crossan maintained.
"The focus is saving that person."