'Non-judgmental' care critical for drug users, expert tells Edmonton fentanyl forum

On Monday, professionals who deal with preventing fentanyl overdoses and deaths spoke to Edmonton’s future health care workers about decriminalization and the way they see addicts.

'This is our next generation that we are losing at numbers that are unprecedented,' says mother who lost son

Panellists listen to a question from the audience at a MacEwan University hosted forum about Alberta's efforts to prevent fentanyl overdoses. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Health-care professionals must be prepared to provide "non-judgmental care" to drug users who need help, a panel on fentanyl heard Monday in Edmonton.

Professionals who deal with preventing fentanyl overdoses and deaths spoke to Edmonton's future health-care workers about decriminalization and the way they see addicts.

It was standing room only in MacEwan University's Kule Lecture Theatre as students and members of the public listened and posted questions to a six-person panel of health officials, academics and front-line workers.

"Stigma, decriminalization, assumptions that we make in health care about people who use substances — these are all really important concepts for people who are going to be involved in health care and for them to grasp," said Dr. Hakique Virani, a public health and addictions specialist at the University of Alberta. 

"For them to provide non-judgmental care for people who use substances is critical to giving good care."

In 2014, 117 Albertans died from fentanyl overdoses. That total more than doubled in 2015, with 257 deaths. In 2016, there were 193 overdose deaths on record by the end of September.

MacEwan University instructor Petra Shulz lost her son Danny to an opioid overdose in 2014. She organized Monday's panel to provide information about harm reduction and initiatives for students as more people across the province continue to overdose and get addicted to fentanyl and other opioids.

"How do we do a better job educating our future practitioners so that they can take what they have learned and lead to better outcomes for people who are struggling with substance use?" Shulz asked.

Behind her was a collage of photographs of Albertans who have died as a result of fentanyl overdoses.

"This is our next generation that we are losing at numbers that are unprecedented," Shulz said. "We can't continue to do so."

Wildrose wants more information

The forum was the same day the Wildrose Opposition called on the Alberta government to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Currently the province releases statistics on overdose deaths four times a year, but Brian Jean and his caucus want monthly statistics.

Virani and Shulz both support this call.

"What are people overdosing from? What are they in emergency rooms for?" asked Shulz. "We need to know all these reasons so we can target interventions to reach the most people possible."

Added Virani: "We measure what we must respond to urgently, and we must report on that in a way that allows us to respond urgently.

"To know numbers of deaths, or numbers of emergency visits, or number of reversed overdoses four months after they've happened makes it very challenging for us to recognize concerning trends."

Announcement coming Tuesday

The Alberta government is expected to announce an overdose prevention measure at an Edmonton fire station on Tuesday.

The Calgary fire department has prevented close to 45 deaths since it acquired a naloxone kits in mid-December.

Naloxone is a drug that can be injected to temporarily reverse an overdose of fentanyl or other opioids, allowing the patient to then get emergency medical help.