Metro Morning

Frontline worker has watched friends, clients die as overdoses climb in Toronto

A frontline worker says that harm reduction is the city's best chance to stop the overdoses and deaths she's seen in recent months.

‘We can teach people to use it safely,’ says worker ahead of Toronto fentanyl meeting

'As a society we have to show compassion, we have to see this as a crisis,' said Zoe Dodd, who has 12 years of experience as a harm reduction worker. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

A frontline worker who has watched a growing number of friends, colleagues and clients overdose and die in recent months said a harm reduction strategy is Toronto's best chance at turning things around.

Zoe Dodd, who works at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, told CBC News she would like to see drug users educated and given access to supervised injection sites.

"I've been working frontline for the last twelve years in the downtown east," she said. "This is the most loss that I've experienced as a frontline worker with seeing and experiencing people overdosing."

Dodd said many of the deaths she's seen have involved heroin cut with fentanyl, including a friend of hers who died last year after ingesting drugs laced with the powerful opioid. 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid increasingly found in street drugs in Canada and the U.S., is between 50 and 80 times stronger than morphine.

Dodd will attend a meeting on Monday hosted by Toronto Public Health officials that will focus on strategies for curbing opioid overdoses in the city. 

"We can teach people how to use it safely," Dodd said, "We can give people education on how to prevent an overdose."

Monday's meeting 'just the beginning'

Barbara Yaffe, Toronto's acting medical officer of health and the chair of Monday's meeting, said she too has noted a "dramatic" rise in drug overdose deaths in the city.

"Mostly due to opioids, [we've had a] 73 per cent increase from 2004 to 2015," she said on Metro Morning.

The meeting will bring together groups such as police, paramedics, drug user groups, harm reduction services and the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to discuss the problem.

"We're hoping to get their input on what we can advocate to the provincial and federal governments," Yaffe said,

She said she is hopeful that provincial funding and federal approval for supervised injection sites will come soon.

Naloxone is effective for counteracting the effects of a number of opioid drugs, including fentanyl, said Toronto Public Health. (Grand River Hospital)

Yaffe said she also would like to see more branches of emergency services carrying naloxone kits. Naloxone is an antidote used to treat narcotic overdoses.

She called Monday's meeting "just the beginning" of Toronto's efforts to address the issue. 

For her part, Dodd would also like more readily available naloxone as soon as possible. 

"We do need to be prepared, because [fentanyl] is already here. People are already dying," she said. 

With files from Metro Morning