Drug’s antidote must be more readily available

Health Canada should take immediate action to make Narcan available without a prescription

The latest rash of overdose deaths sweeping across the country is showing us, once again, that no community is immune to the terrible costs of drug abuse. And once again, it is clearly evident that people have less problems obtaining their drug of choice than receiving help with their addictions.

The drug fentanyl has been responsible for hundreds of deaths across the country, with Vancouver police responding to 16 apparent fentanyl overdoses in one day alone earlier this month. And Victoria Police Insp. Scott McGregor says the drug is probably as prevalent here as it is anywhere else.

In Victoria, the B.C. coroners office has recorded seven deaths linked to fentanyl since January 2012.

Ironically, changes made to the drug OxyContin intended to prevent abuse of the opioid likely led to the rise in the use of fentanyl, which is 20 times more potent. The drug is often passed off as OxyContin or mixed with other street drugs such as heroin.

Narcan, an effective antidote to fentanyl overdose, has been supplied to hospitals for decades. It can restore normal breathing and consciousness within three to five minutes of an injection. The problem is that if an overdose occurs in a bathroom or back alley rather than a hospital ER, that help may come too late.

In B.C., users can also obtain a take-home kit to have that antidote available when they need it. The kits are available by prescription in dozens of sites around the province including at least two in Victoria. But those kits are only effective if they are readily available, and the prescription-only status is keeping them out of the hands of many users not ready to bring their addiction into the open along with their family members.

Health Canada has agreed to review whether Narcan should be made available without a prescription, although the process could take up to 18 months. But that will be too late for hundreds whose lives might hang in the balance.