Will contaminated street drugs hurt progress in the fight against opioids?

As Nova Scotia braces for a wave of opioid-laced street drugs, Nova Scotia's health minister says the province's strategy to fight opioid addiction has been paying off.

The Nova Scotia government says wait times are down and more treatment options are available

Dr. Robert Strang, chief medical officer of health for Nova Scotia, says Environment Canada heat alerts are only the first step in dealing with high temperatures and humidity. (Robert Short/CBC)

The Nova Scotia government says its strategy to fight deadly opioid addiction has been paying off but with opioid-laced street drugs expected to hit the East Coast, the province's chief medical officer of health warns now is not the time to be complacent.

Other provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are seeing a "substantive" increase in deaths due to street drugs that are contaminated with opioids, said Dr. Robert Strang.

"We are seeing this west to east movement," he said, adding opioid-laced drugs "would create significantly increased risks."

About 60 people have died each year in Nova Scotia due to opioid overdoses since 2011. Last year, the province released its opioid framework, focusing on prevention, harm reduction, treatment and law enforcement.

Health Minister Randy Delorey says the province is making progress in its fight against opioids. (Robert Short/CBC)

Speaking Friday in Truro, Health Minister Randy Delorey said the province has eliminated waits for methadone treatment in the Halifax area and significantly reduced the wait-list in other parts of the province. 

"We are in a vastly different spot today than we were a year ago and two years before that," Delorey told a group gathered at the Northern Healthy Connections Society, a community-based harm reduction and health promotion site.

He said treatment services have expanded to communities that previously didn't have them, and there's been a dramatic increase in the distribution of clean-needle exchanges.

Karen Kittilsen Levine, the harm reduction co-ordinator at the Northern Healthy Connections Society, said the number of syringes distributed in northern Nova Scotia increased from about 29,000 in 2016-17 to 95,000 in 2017-18. 

She expects that number to rise to at least 150,000 by the end of this fiscal year. About 43 per cent of the needles distributed in northern Nova Scotia went to Pictou County.

"The opioid crisis is not just in Vancouver or in large cities like Toronto and Calgary," Kittilsen Levine said. "It's here at home."

Naloxone kits distributed through pharmacies have reversed 90 opioid overdoses in the province since January 2016, and kits administered through police and paramedics reversed an additional 21.

Wait-list reduction saves lives

Dr. Sam Hickcox, an addictions specialist and family physician based in Halifax, said he's seen a difference on the front lines of fighting addiction.

"The real change I've noticed is when I encounter someone who's seeking help with opioid addiction, rather than saying, 'I'm sorry, you're just going to have to wait, see you later. Go out to the streets, maybe in 30 days you'll have an appointment to see somebody, and maybe at that point you can get on a medication,' now it's, 'Well, let's take you in right now and get started.'"

Dr. Sam Hickcox is an addictions specialist and family physician based in Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

Hickcox said the reduction in wait times can be a matter of life or death for some patients.

"What that means is that you have someone who is desperate, suicidal, at great risk of dying from an opioid overdose … every day that they're waiting to get treatment, it's like a ticking time bomb. And there's a death rate there.

"It's kind of like having cancer. You're waiting to get radiotherapy or chemotherapy and every day that you wait makes your prognosis worse."