Spike in opioid deaths prompts Ontario government to offer free naloxone spray

New government data shows a spike in opioid-related deaths in Ontario for much of last year compared to 2016, prompting the government to make Narcan nasal spray available — free of charge — in pharmacies by the end of the month.

Narcan nasal spray will be available for free at pharmacies by the end of the month

If used properly, a naloxone kit can reverse an opioid overdose. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Updated numbers show a spike in opioid-related deaths in Ontario for much of last year compared to 2016, prompting the province to make Narcan nasal spray available — free of charge — in pharmacies by the end of the month.

The province said there were 1,053 opioid-related deaths from January to October 2017, compared with 694 during the same time period in 2016.

It also said there were there were 7,658 emergency department visits related to opioid overdoses from January to October of last year, up from 4,453 during the same time period the previous year.

The new figures are being released as the government said Ontario pharmacies are providing another version of an overdose-reversing drug for free.

Ask your pharmacist

Naloxone nasal spray will be available in pharmacies by the end of the month at no charge, in addition to existing naloxone kits that include an injectable version of the drug meant as an emergency treatment for opioid overdoses.

This graph shows the number of opioid-related deaths in Ontario from March, 2016 to August 2018. (Public Health Ontario)

"The nasal spray is a lot easier to use in the event of an overdose. It's a bit stronger and lasts a little longer, which gives paramedics more time to attend to an overdose emergency," said Mark Barnes, pharmacist and owner of Respect Rx Pharmasave in Ottawa.

Barnes has trained more than 5,000 people on how to treat overdoses with naloxone kits. He said although injection kits have been extremely successful, the nasal spray has added benefits.

"It's just with the strength of the opioids we are seeing, especially in fentanyl and carfentanil in Ontario, we're seeing that the nasal spray may work a little better to prevent the overdose."

in Ontario, 56 per cent of people who died of opioid-related causes filed a prescription for the drug in the months before their death, said Barnes, which makes pharmacies a good place to be receiving kits for prevention. But, Barnes said, pharmacists need to do a better job of coming out from behind the counter and educating people about drug use. 

The nasal spray version of naloxone was developed by Adapt Pharma, a Dublin-based company that markets the product under the brand name Narcan. (Adapt Pharma)

"There's a public perception that these kits are only used for people addicted to heroin on the street," he said. "Overdoses can happen in many situations — overdoses can happen with your own prescription that you use incorrectly."

RAAM clinics tackle emergency room visits

The province announced more than 30 communities will see new or enhanced Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinics. The clinics started as a pilot project in seven communities in Ontario, allowing patients to receive a medical assisted therapy for their addiction, then be referred to other healthcare professionals to begin recovery treatment with little or no wait time. 

Kate Hardy is the manager of META:PHI, which ran the pilot programs in the province. In a statement emailed to CBC, Hardy said the clinics have been successful in their goal of reducing emergency room visits — which have also spiked in opioid-related visits.

This graph shows the amount of emergency room visits related to opioid use, in purple, and the amount of opioid-related hospitalisations, yellow, in Ontario from January, 2016 to September, 2017. (Public Health Ontario)

"Unlike traditional treatment programs there are no wait times, scheduled appointments, or complicated intake assessments," said Hardy, adding the clinics are made to be more accessible for people dealing with addictions. 

"RAAM clinics are outpatient to allow patients to continue with their work and family responsibilities, and the service providers are non-judgmental," she said.

The Ontario government has pledged to spend more than $222 million over three years to tackle the growing opioid crisis in the province, with money earmarked to expand harm reduction services and hiring more frontline staff.

With files from the Canadian Press