A disturbing number of deaths related to opioid overdoses in Simcoe-Muskoka has prompted the implementation of a new program in the region.
Jillian Fenik, manager of sexual health programs for the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit, said there has been a spike in overdose deaths here in the last few years.
“Between 2000 and 2009, there were 109 opioid deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka. The majority of deaths were male and occurred in the age range of 20 to 44,” said Fenik, whose department is also responsible for blood-borne diseases and needle-related programs. “In 2012, there were 31 overdose deaths in Simcoe-Muskoka related to opioids.”
She noted Simcoe-Muskoka has 29 per cent more opioid-related deaths than the provincial average. She said there is no confirmed explanation of why opioid deaths are higher in the region.
Opioids refer to opiates and synthetic substances that contain opium or mimic its pain-relieving effects, such as morphine, hydromorphone, heroin, oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl and methadone.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health states the drugs, many of which are prescribed by physicians for chronic pain caused by disease, surgery, injury or illness, can cause a euphoria that makes them prone to abuse.
Police have commented that poverty plays a role in trafficking of the drugs in Muskoka as high unemployment rates force some people to turn to illegal sources of income.
Statistics Canada stated Muskoka’s unemployment rate was more than eight per cent in May, which was above the provincial average of 7.6 per cent.
One fentanyl patch, for example, has a street value between $80 and $300.
As trafficking, substance abuse and deaths increase in the region, the health unit has launched a new treatment program to reverse opioid overdoses.
Public health nurses, as part of the program, will distribute kits containing a drug called Naloxone free of charge to individuals using opioids. After a 20-minute training session, the person will get the POD, or preventing opioid death, kit.
Fenik said Naloxone abuse is unlikely.
“When someone uses Naloxone, it immediately takes away the high and puts them into a withdrawal state. It doesn’t make them feel good,” she said. “We don’t anticipate Naloxone being misused because it doesn’t yield a positive effect, other than saving them from the overdose.”
The drug can reverse the overdose symptoms within one to five minutes by blocking the effect of opioids on the brain.
The kits made their way to the region in July.
Fenik said it was hard to say whether there would be a demand for the kits.
“It may take time for the program to grow – for people to hear about the program and feel comfortable coming in to access kits,” she said.
And she said the availability of the drug would not encourage continued use of opioids.
“Someone with a peanut allergy who is carrying an EpiPen doesn’t eat more peanut butter just because they have the EpiPen,” she said. “It really is just an additional harm reduction mechanism.”
She added the program is part of a broader harm reduction strategy.
“It is about building relationships with clients that are using opioids, so that we can make appropriate referrals, if and when they are ready for treatment supports,” she said.
Contact the health unit office in Gravenhurst at 2-5 Pineridge Gate or 705-684-9090, or in Huntsville at 34 Chaffey Street or 705-789-8813 for more information.