Anti-overdose drug naloxone still not widely available in the North

There are renewed calls for the three northern territories to make the lifesaving drug naloxone widely available, following a series of near-fatal overdoses in Yellowknife.

Series of near-fatal overdoses in Yellowknife has sparked calls to make life-saving drug widely available

Narcan, or naloxone kits that can temporarily stop an opioid overdose still require a doctor's prescription in the territories, but are now available from pharmacies without a prescription in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario. (The Associated Press)

There are renewed calls for the three northern territories to make the lifesaving drug naloxone widely available following a series of near-fatal overdoses in Yellowknife.

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.

In the N.W.T., naloxone is available in emergency rooms, health clinics and ambulances. The RCMP are also working to distribute the life-saving drug to detachments across the North.

In March, naloxone was deregulated by Health Canada. 

British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have recently made naloxone available at pharmacies without a prescription.

After eight suspected fentanyl overdoses in Yellowknife last week, pharmacist and former N.W.T. MLA Daryl Dolynny says the Northwest Territories needs to get with the program.

"We've fallen behind some time ago," Dolynny says.

While an MLA, he says he called on the Department of Health in 2015 to make naloxone more accessible to the public.

"One only had to look at coroner's reports to see that the early warning signs were bestowed upon us in the Northwest Territories. I firmly believe that today we're in the same boat. We need to catch up to our provincial counterparts."

There have been five fentanyl-related deaths in the Northwest Territories in the past five years, according to N.W.T's chief coroner.

In 2015, the World Health Organization issued a list of guidelines on how international governments can combat opioid abuse. The guidelines strongly recommend naloxone be accessible to the general public, as long as they're instructed on how to use it.

No timeline for N.W.T. 

For some time in the three territories, naloxone kits could be prescribed to patients who admit to using drugs like fentanyl or oxycodone. Family, friends and those who work with drug users didn't have access to the drug.

But according to the WHO, those are the very people most likely to be in a situation where they need to administer the drug.

"Most opioid overdoses occur in private homes and most of these are witnessed. Close friends, a partner or family members are most likely to witness an opioid overdose," the WHO report states.

"People likely to witness an opioid overdose should have access to naloxone."

The N.W.T. Department of Health says it's not sure when or if the drug will be made widely available.

"The N.W.T. is still working on a way to make some form of naloxone available to members of the public," a Department of Health spokesperson told CBC in an email.

"We do not have a timeline at this point regarding when this work will be complete."

Yukon pilot program

The Yukon government recently rolled out a pilot program that puts naloxone kits in the hands of drug users. Naloxone kits are currently being given out at the Blood Ties Four Direction Centre and the Taiga Medical Clinic in Whitehorse.

Patricia Bacon, executive director of the Blood Ties Centre, says the program is a success. The centre has handed out 12 kits since the program started two months ago. She's unsure if any of them have been used but she says she likes the Yukon government's approach.

"We're easing into it so we can work out the kits. We don't just want to jump into handing them out everywhere," Bacon says.

"The kit should be made available to anyone who would be around people who use opioid drugs or those who are using them themselves. We look at it as a first aid kit. First aid kits should be widely available."

The Yukon government has said it hopes to provide naloxone kits to drug users across the territory within the next 12 months.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said naloxone is still not available without a prescription in the North, and in particular the N.W.T. Initially, the N.W.T. government was unable to clarify whether a prescription is required, though the Canadian Pharmacists Association said that it is. CBC later learned that injectable nalaxone is available without a prescription in the N.W.T., though communities without pharmacies are only able to receive naloxone kits through their health centre or clinic. The territorial government is developing a pilot program to make naloxone kits available at health centres, clinics, and hospitals.
    Dec 01, 2016 1:09 PM CT

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