The provincial government is working with The AIDS Committee of Newfoundland and Labrador to distribute 1200 naloxone kits to targeted populations across the province.
Naloxone kits save lives by reversing the effects of opioid overdoses. They are being distributed across the country as a way of combating our nation’s fentanyl crisis. In Alberta, one of the provinces hit hardest by the fentanyl epidemic, naloxone kits have been available for free since 2012.
Fentanyl is a cheap but very powerful opioid that gets added to street drugs to make them more profitable. It has found its way to Newfoundland. Tree Walsh, the Harm Reduction Manager at the AIDS Committee of Newfoundland, says at least 20 people have died from fentanyl overdoses in Newfoundland and Labrador this year.
Tree Walsh runs the Safe Works Access Program (SWAP), which provides drug users in the province with clean using equipment and information on the safest way to use drugs.
She explained that while fentanyl is typically found in opioids like Oxycontin, drug dealers in the province are also adding fentanyl to uppers, like cocaine.
“Today we’re finding that everything is being laced with fentanyl … opioid overdose is now a risk for people who are not even using opioids; cocaine users are overdosing with opioids,” says Walsh.
The distribution of naloxone kits is part of the government’s new Opioid Action Plan, which includes initiatives to control the over-prescription of opioids.
Walsh says that while cracking down on the prescription of opioids is absolutely necessary to curb addiction, it will initially lead to a higher demand for street drugs. A spike in the use of street drugs will push dealers to cut more drugs with fentanyl, putting more people at risk of death by opioid overdose.
THE NECESSITY OF HARM REDUCTION PROGRAMS
Walsh says the government’s Opioid Action Plan will save lives and cut down on addiction in the province. However, she believes that by implementing more harm reduction measures, the government could control the spread of disease and help users avoid drug-related illness and injury.
“The government distributing naloxone province-wide is an acknowledgement that drug use is out there province wide, therefore I believe access to clean using equipment is paramount, it should be available everywhere people can get a naloxone kit,” Walsh says.
When drug users visit SWAP to collect clean needles, staff use the visit as an opportunity to help them understand how injecting is hurting their bodies.
“When people come here to get clean using supplies; clean needles, new crack pipes… sometimes that’s the very first thing they’ve done about their healthcare in very long time…” says Walsh.
Walsh has visual cues all over her office that she uses to explain the dangers of reusing or sharing drug paraphilia, including the risk of contracting hepatitis C or HIV.
“If we can help people prevent disease very often they’ll stay connected and move further along the health care continuum to be healthy. Even if they choose to use they choose to do it in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or others,” Walsh explains.
By educating drug users on how to avoid spreading HIV and Hepatitis C, SWAP prevents the spread of infections that hugely impact people’s quality of life and avoid the cost of upwards of $100,000 per person to treat.
Walsh says the government needs to recognize that preventative, harm-reduction strategies are an important part of combatting addiction and drug use in the province.