Health Canada has agreed to review the prescription-only status of an antidote used to treat heroin and other opioid overdoses.

A number of provinces have called for naloxone to be easier to access, so people who might one day need it can keep it on hand.

The idea would be to treat naloxone like EpiPens and insulin, the department suggested in a press release, which was issued without fanfare on Friday.

"In the event Health Canada's initial assessment finds that the benefits of expanding access appear to outweigh potential risks, the next step would be a public consultation," the department said in the release.

It suggested the full process could be completed in about 18 months.

In April 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an easy-to-use device that injects naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan.

The device is meant to be used as a first step in response to an overdose — the drug can be administered to try to keep the person alive until an ambulance arrives.

Normally, a manufacturer is the party that applies to have a drug's prescription status reviewed.

But Health Canada can also initiate the process, if it believes there is a health and safety benefit to allowing easier access to a drug.

A number of provinces and cities have already started programs in which they give out "rescue" kits containing naloxone and syringes to opioid users or their families and friends. For instance, Edmonton and Toronto have programs which arm volunteers with kits and training on how to use them.

Earlier this week, the Alberta government announced it would pay for 1,000 naloxone kits to be distributed in a variety of centres in the province. Funding was also promised for another 2,250 kits, if they are needed.

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said the move was a response to the growing number of fentanyl-related deaths across Alberta.

Health Canada said that as a first step in its risk assessment, it has asked provinces and cities to share the data they have on naloxone use.

"While naloxone has been used safely in Canadian hospitals for more than 40 years, Health Canada's risk assessment would examine all elements, including the risks of use in the initial absence of a health professional," the statement said.