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The opioid drug crisis flaring up in Southwestern Ontario is becoming so bad across the province, hundreds of doctors, nurses and others are pushing Queen’s Park to declare an emergency.
In an open letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne Monday, the health workers say limited resources and poor data are preventing them from responding properly to a disturbing, sustained increase in overdoses.
“The consequences have been clear: lives lost, families destroyed and harm reduction and health care worker burnout,” they write.
Wynne, after meeting with group members, said in a statement the government will announce “significant additional resources and supports” in coming days.
“We agreed that what’s happening in Ontario is a public health crisis,” she said.
Declaring a public health emergency, as British Columbia did last year, is a move that would typically free up more money to tackle the issue.
In Southwestern Ontario, opioids used on the street have triggered rare public health and police warnings, including in London and in Sarnia, a city where a rash of three drug overdoses in mere hours recently left one person dead. Cocaine contaminated by fentanyl, a potent opioid painkiller, was the suspected culprit.
Even the volume of legally prescribed opioids is raising eyebrows, with a recent report suggesting some areas of Southwestern Ontario — Sarnia-Lambton, Chatham-Kent, Elgin County and Windsor-Essex — are running some of Ontario’s highest rates for opioid drug prescriptions.
The drive to declare opioid abuse an emergency in Ontario is getting support from London Mayor Matt Brown and health agencies dealing with the problem.
“Here in London we are dealing with a crisis that continues to grow,” said Brown.
“We have to something. Fenantyl is arriving here and across Ontario and we have to be prepared,” he said.
Brown has called for the creation of a local opioid crisis working group to combat abuse of the family of drugs, at the urging of local health agencies including the London Intercommunity Health Centre.
Its executive director, Scott Courtice, is among the 700 health care professionals who signed the open letter to Wynne after it made the rounds online.
“We have to get ahead of it — we don’t want to be in the same place as B.C where there are so many overdose deaths,” he said.
Courtice said declaring an emergency could spur more funding for naloxone kits, which can reverse the effects of an overdose, response workers and addiction treatment centres.
London has seen wave after wave of drugs, ranging from crystal meth to heroin, but Courtice said fentanyl is different because it’s so deadly, even in trace amounts, and is often mixed in with other street drugs.
“At the root of this is people with mental health issues and unresolved trauma,” he said. “I have yet to meet somebody that had deliberately taken fentanyl.”
The Middlesex-London Health Unit says opioid overdoses claim about 30 lives a year and shows signs of worsening,.
Dr. Chris Mackie. the London region’s medical officer of health, is to address a city council committee Sept. 18 on a strategy that could include a medically supervised drug injection site.
Mackie was unavailable for comment Monday.
The problem’s growth is inevitable and the province must play a key role in working with municipalities to establish supervised injection and detox sites, said Dr. Sharon Koivu, an addiction medicine specialist at the London Health Sciences Centre .
Supervised sites may face public opposition, but Koivu said they help addicts deal with a medical problem.
“They increase community safety, not decrease it. Our science tell us that we need to take care of our citizens by preventing overdose through supervised injection sites,” she said.
Health Minister Eric Hoskins has noted Ontario launched a strategy on opioid addiction and overdose last year, has provided funding for new front-line addiction and mental health workers and is distributing more than 6,500 kits with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone each month.
Hoskins’ office said significant further supports will be announced soon as part of the opioid strategy. The group behind the open letter was unable to quantify how much more funding is needed to address the crisis, but said it’s certainly in the millions and needs to come urgently.
“We’re leaving the responsibility of this crisis to people’s families and their friends and people who use drugs to save each other’s lives and it is not OK,” said harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd.
At Queen’s Park, the Progressive Conservatives under Patrick Brown say the Liberal government must crack down on machines used to make counterfeit pills and should divert 10 per cent of ithe government’s $57-million advertising budget to opioid awareness.
But the government doesn’t need to delcare a full-blown emergency to take steps now to deal with the problem, said PC health critic Jeff Yurek.
“It is everywhere and smaller rural areas have fewer supports in place to deal with the crisis,” said Yurek, the Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP and a pharmacist by profession.
The Ontario NDP says it supports the declaration of a health emergency.
“The need for action is urgent and any further delays by the Wynne government are simply unacceptable,” NDP health critic France Gelinas said in a statement.
B.C. declared a public health emergency in April 2016 after 201 overdose deaths were recorded in the first three months of that year, 64 of them involving fentanyl.
– with files from the Canadian Press
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