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Updated: 10th September 2018 05:51

Calgary naloxone distribution spikes as opioid deaths leap by 40%

​Claire O'Gorman came across a man who was overdosing on opioids in downtown Calgary earlier this year. He was slumped over, unconscious. His skin was grey and his lips were blue.

Alberta saw 40% spike in opioid overdose deaths in 2017 over same period last year

Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth says firefighters in the city have responded to 1,050 opioid-related calls so far this year, a massive spike over 390 calls in 2016. (CBC)

​Claire O'Gorman came across a man who was overdosing on opioids in downtown Calgary earlier this year. He was slumped over, unconscious. His skin was grey and his lips were blue.

A registered nurse, O'Gorman gave the man a dose of naloxone, life-saving medicine that reverses opioid overdoses. It was enough to revive him by the time paramedics arrived.

"It's really lucky I was able to find him in that moment," said O'Gorman, program co-ordinator at the harm reduction agency Safeworks, who typically carries naloxone with her.

"A big risk with overdoses is people who use substances alone. Even if you have training and carry your own naloxone kit, if no one is there to use it [on you] if you overdose, that's where the real risk is."

O'Gorman's agency has seen a major spike in demand for the opioid overdose antidote.

Safeworks — which operates a needle exchange, a safe consumption site and other outreach programs — handed out more than 2,200 naloxone kits from January to November. That's more than three times what it distributed in all of 2016.

O'Gorman doesn't know how many of these kits were used to save lives, but she said it's a good sign that a growing number of Calgarians understand the dangers of opioids and want to be prepared for the worst.

"The unfortunate piece is that we have a crisis, and that people are still dying," she said. "These kits are one part of the response [to the wider problem]."

Data shows drug crisis getting worse

Alberta's fentanyl crisis triggered a major change in the way health officials have approached harm reduction. Until it became clear the street drug was responsible for an escalating death toll in early 2015, only one agency — Streetworks in Edmonton — was distributing the antidote.

Now, it's available in many pharmacies, university campuses and community agencies across the province. Police and firefighters also carry it.

Still, all indications suggest Alberta's drug crisis is only getting worse.

The latest data shows there were 480 overdose deaths linked to fentanyl and other opioids in the first nine months of the year, a 40 per cent increase over the same period in 2016.

Across the country, at least 1,460 people died from opioid overdoses in the first half of the year, largely in western provinces and territories, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The national death toll could exceed 4,000 by the end of the year.

Firefighters and police naloxone use

Calgary firefighters say they've responded to 1,050 opioid-related calls so far this year, a massive spike over 390 calls in 2016.

"We've certainly come across situations where our crews have been on scene before EMS with patients who are essentially deceased," said Chief Steve Dongworth, whose department has administered naloxone to 330 patients so far this year.  

"They're not breathing, they have no pulse and we've been able to recover them."

Calgary fire chief talks naloxone distribution 5:02

Calgary police started carrying naloxone in March after the Alberta government authorized them to join province-wide efforts to reduce the harms of drug abuse. Since then, local officers have administered the antidote 65 times.

"We have this kit that can provide both public and officer safety to make sure that when we do go to these types of events, we have the right equipment to get that person or ourselves into the right treatment," said Staff Sgt Peter Duchnij.

'It seems that people care'

O'Gorman said she's heard many stories of lives being saved by naloxone, giving her hope that "we are making a difference" in the overdose epidemic, though she said more help is needed.

"When I see an increased number of naloxone kits going out, I'm actually really encouraged by that because to me it seems that people care," she said.

"We want this to be a really normal thing. We want it to be part of first aid and part of being prepared for emergency situations."

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