The move to make a drug that reverses opioid overdoses available over the counter at pharmacies will “absolutely” save lives, according to the Warm Zone’s Erica Thompson.
As the country confronts what has been described as an “epidemic” of heroin- and fentanyl-related overdoses, Health Canada announced that naloxone, which is also frequently sold under the brand name Narcan, would be available without a prescription.
The BC College of Pharmacists quickly followed suit, amending its rules to allow the drug to be obtained over the counter after receiving training and information from a pharmacist.
Naloxone is frequently described as an “antidote” to overdoses from opioids – a group of drugs that includes heroin and fentanyl. It can currently be administered only by injection and had been available only with a prescription, which meant it could only be possessed by those with a history of drug addiction.
During a public consultation process, Health Canada said all 130 responses it received were in favour of removing the drug’s prescription status.
Although there were calls for a more “user-friendly” form of the drug, Health Canada concluded “the benefit of having naloxone, even in the injectable form, available as soon as a potential overdose is observed outweighed the risks.”
Thompson, a former heroin addict who now trains people in the use of naloxone, said the injection process is similar to that of an EpiPen used to halt allergic reactions. She said awareness of naloxone has increased dramatically over the past year in conjunction with growing data that show more and more people are being killed by overdoses.
Fentanyl, a drug described as 100 times more lethal than heroin, has been associated to 30 per cent of such deaths; a bulletin sent out last August by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found that fentanyl was a contributing cause in the deaths of at least 655 people in Canada between 2009 and 2014. Most of the deaths took place in the latter two years.
Thompson said making the drug available over the counter will make it easier for family members of addicts and service providers to have access to naloxone. That, she said, will save lives.
Thompson said being able to carry naloxone “empowers” those with relatives and friends who have battled drugs.
“They just now feel that if something happens, they are able to react,” she said.
Thompson also hopes to soon see all first responders in Abbotsford carrying it. Firefighters have been receiving training over the past month, and Chief Don Beer expects all members to be carrying naloxone by mid-April.
The Abbotsford Police Department has also had internal discussions about having officers carry naloxone, although “nothing is imminent,” according to Const. Ian MacDonald.
Thompson suggested that officers have shown enthusiasm for carrying naloxone, but that “red tape” issues have arisen.
“I believe a lot of the police officers in patrol would very much like to carry this,” she said, noting that they too can feel helpless when confronted with a member of the public suffering from an overdose. “That’s got to be traumatic to them to sit back and watch this when they know there’s a life-saving antidote available that’s easy to use. I think we’re doing a disservice to our first responders if we don’t equip them.”
Naloxone/Narcan can now be available at pharmacies, and pharmacists have information on the drug. People seeking more information can contact Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.