Toronto drug users receiving anti-overdose kits

Toronto Public Health officials are providing drug users with special kits that contain doses of a drug that can prevent overdoses.

Toronto Public Health officials are providing drug users with special kits that contain doses of a drug that can prevent overdoses.

The kits, the size of an eyeglass case, contain injection syringes and two doses of naloxone – also known by its brand name Narcan.

When injected, the drug can immediately reverse the effects of an opiate overdose, such as heroin or morphine.

Shaun Hopkins, the manager of the City of Toronto's needle exchange program, said city health officials began handing out the kits a few weeks ago and they have already saved three people.

"In two cases, the people were revived and taken to hospital; in the third case, the person was revived but chose not to go to hospital," she said.

It is estimated that Toronto has about 15,000 known drug users, many of them heroin addicts. The city records about 100 deaths a year from drug overdoses. Hopkins hopes the program will help reduce that number.

Hopkins said about 75 people, mainly drug users, have already received the kits.

She said those who take the kits also get training on how to recognize an overdose and how to inject naloxone. The drug is administered by injection through the skin and begins to work almost immediately.

The move is being hailed by those who work with drug users. Raffi Balian, who runs Counterfit, a harm reduction program that serves the east end of Toronto, describes naloxone as a "miracle drug."

"To have this product, which can reverse an overdose right away, is an amazing thing," he said. "I know it works because I have brought people back from overdoses at least three times and one person twice."

Toronto is not the first city to hand out naloxone. Several cities in the United States have similar programs.

In Canada, Edmonton started handing out naloxone in 2005, according to Marliss Taylor, program manager for Street Works, a harm reduction program in Edmonton. The initiative was prompted by a sudden rash of deaths from overdoses on Edmonton streets.

"It's easy, cost-effective and a safe thing to do," she said, adding that in the first year, 18 per cent of those given kits used them.

Hopkins said she is hoping for similar results in Toronto. She said the program not only saves lives but is cost-effective. A dose of naloxone runs about $8. Hopkins said that is far cheaper than the cost of an ambulance and a visit to an emergency department.