British Columbia

B.C. program handed out 220% more naloxone kits in 2016 than last 3 years combined

The spike comes as B.C. grapples with its deadliest illicit drug crisis in over a decade.

'We desperately hope that the numbers of overdoses — the deaths — will start going down'

Take-home naloxone kits are mandated at all emergency rooms in B.C. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

Between 2013 and 2015, B.C.'s take-home naloxone program dispensed just under 5,200 kits provincewide.

Last year, it handed out more than 16,500 — an increase of nearly 220 per cent.

But the head of the program handing out the life-saving kits says she hopes the demand for the antidote drops soon.

"We desperately hope that the numbers of overdoses, the deaths will start going down," said Dr. Jane Buxton, the program's lead at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

"[Naloxone] does reverse overdoses, but it's a Band-Aid," said Buxton. "We're hoping somewhere along the line that we can see less overdoses happening the community and less need for the kits."

The drug, also known as Narcan, is an antidote that reverses the effects of an overdose. It works by blocking drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil from the susceptible area of the brain, reversing respiratory depression so a person can breathe again.

The spike comes as B.C. grapples with its deadliest illicit drug crisis in over a decade.

On Wednesday, the province is expected to announce the final total for the number of people who died from illicit drug overdose in 2016.

It is already known that from January to November, 755 people died of confirmed or suspected overdoses in B.C., making fatal overdoses the leading cause of unnatural death.

A chance for prevention

B.C.'s take-home program, run by the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), began in September 2012 after a rise in heroin overdoses the previous year. Each kit contains one dose of the antidote.

Buxton said the authority has been relatively strategic in its distribution.

"We've been really actively targeting and making sure that we're getting to the people who are at highest risk," she told CBC News on Tuesday. "As you can see from the numbers of administrations, obviously people are needing those kits."

There are over 400 distribution sites across the province, including ones in prisons, shelters, recovery homes, and First Nations communities. Emergency rooms in B.C. also have the kits on hand. 

Buxton said the program serves a double purpose — aside from saving lives, it brings people together and provides an opportunity for education.

"For me, the other sort of bonus that comes out of it is it gets the dialogue going," she said. "That people will come forward to get a kit, and that's your opportunity to talk about prevention, to talk about treatment." 

One of the main challenges, Buxton said, is that people still use drugs alone.

A paramedic walks a woman into an ambulance in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside after firefighters administered naloxone in December. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC News)

"We need to break down the stigma so that they come forward and share with their loved ones that they're using," she said. "Then people around them can actually have a kit."

Going forward, Buxton said the BCCDC is going to maintain its distribution pace and focus on education.

New multi-dose program begins

Just over a month ago, a new facility overdose response program was introduced. Boxes of supplies containing several doses of naloxone are handed out to facilities like shelters and recovery homes, so less staffers have to carry individual kits.

That program is in the training stages and Buxton said there will be a follow-up process to determine its efficacy. 

As for funding, the doctor said she sees the program as an essential service and can't see any funding cuts in the near future.

To date, the B.C. Ministry of Health has contributed just over $1 million to the program. The initiative is also supposed through the Provincial Health Services Authority.

The doctor said she didn't anticipate the program would grow so much in just over four years.

"We weren't caught napping, but even so, we were taken by surprise," she said. "I am so grateful we started when we did, so things were in place, and we've been able to respond to the need as it's built up."

With files from Matt Meuse