Opioid antidote naloxone difficult to find in Gatineau, says nursing prof

A Gatineau-based nursing professor says it's proving "impossible" to find naloxone in the city — and across the rest of Quebec, too — and is calling on the provincial government to step up.

Marilou Gagnon recently visited Quebec pharmacies and struggled to find naloxone

Marilou Gagnon of Gatineau, Que., a professor of nursing in Ottawa, said it's difficult to access naloxone in Gatineau and elsewhere in Quebec. (Submitted by Marilou Gagnon)

A Gatineau-based nursing professor says it's "impossible" to find naloxone in the city — and across the rest of Quebec — and is calling on the provincial government to do more to get the opioid antidote into people's hands.

Earlier this year, Marilou Gagnon went from pharmacy to pharmacy in downtown Montreal, trying to find someone willing to prescribe her naloxone.

Not only was she unable to procure the life-saving antidote at the Montreal pharmacies she visited, but the University of Ottawa associate professor said the situation isn't much different in Gatineau.

"It's impossible right now," Gagnon told CBC Radio's All In A Day. "If you're in Gatineau and you don't have a naloxone kit, you call 911." 

Naloxone helps counter the effects of opiods like fentanyl. The Ontario government announced in June that provincial health-care units would soon be receiving roughly 80,000 naloxone kits in an attempt to reduce the number of people dying from overdoses.

In Ottawa, take-home naloxone kits are also available for free at many pharmacies, as well as the Ottawa Hospital. The Ministry of Health and Long-term Care also maintains a list of places Ontarians can pick up the kits.

Despite Gatineau's proximity to Ottawa, it doesn't really offer any benefits to residents when it comes to accessing naloxone, said Gagnon.

"You can't really cross the river and go get a naloxone kit," she said. "There's often a big barrier there ... you are asked to show your OHIP card, and Quebec people don't have an OHIP card."

Naloxone helps counter the effects of opiods like fentanyl. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Neither police nor firefighters in Quebec, the typical first responders, carry naloxone either, she added.

"I know the government will say, 'All our paramedics have naloxone with them.' But the response time on average in Gatineau for an ambulance to reach someone is like 18 minutes," Gagnon said.

"And so 18 minutes is way too long. You need that person to be breathing within that [first] minute. It's a matter of seconds before you actually have brain damage."

'We haven't stepped up'

As well, Quebec has "been unable to provide any data on overdose-related deaths" to the federal government, said Gagnon — making them an anomaly in Canada.

Ontario hospitals, for instance, have to issue weekly reports summarizing any overdose deaths that happen in their emergency rooms. Coroners also have to make those deaths known, she said.

Those are "concrete steps" Quebec could follow, said Gagnon.

"At a specific point in time I could understand [why we don't have Quebec numbers] because every province kind of struggled with this crisis, a year and a half ago," said Gagnon.

"Right now, as we speak, it's just really impossible for me to understand why we haven't stepped up and why we don't have a plan in place." 

Noémie Vanheuverzwijn, a spokesperson for Quebec's Public Health Ministry, told CBC News "work is underway to prepare for a possible crisis."

"Naloxone is available to anyone in the pharmacy without a doctor's prescription. There is no compulsory training for either the pharmacist or the patient," the ministry's statement said.

CBC News asked Lucie Charlebois, Quebec's public health minister, for an interview Tuesday, but she was not available.