Following behind British Columbia and Alberta, Ontario has become the latest province to make the opiate overdose antidote naloxone available without a prescription.
Last Friday, Alberta, which has one of the highest rate of fentanyl overdose in the country, made naloxone available at 600 pharmacies across the province free of charge. Now Ontario has adopted a similar model to Alberta's, making the antidote available at pharmacies over the counter for free.
According to statistics released in February, fentanyl is the opiate responsible for the most overdose deaths in Ontario: in 2014, it was responsible for one in four opiate-related deaths in the province. And though the Ontario College of Pharmacists initially said the province would be moving on increasing access to naloxone in early July, provincial Health Minister Eric Hoskins said today that the changes would be effective immediately.
"It's a decision that many in Ontario have advocated for several years, and it's one that is guaranteed to save lives and reduce injuries for all Ontarians," Michael Parkinson, community engagement coordinator at Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, told VICE. "This is excellent news, but key to remember is that [naloxone is] still just one piece in reducing the opiate crisis. We often think there is one magic bullet that will solve everything... There is still much more work to be done."
Some of that additional work includes prompt access to effective treatment for opiate addiction. "The problem is waitlists can stretch into months—similar to cardiac arrest patients, treatment should be available on demand when someone makes that decision," he said.
Dr. Hakique Virani, a specialist in public health, preventative medicine, and addiction medicine at the University of Alberta, told VICE, "There's no question that [naloxone] should be available—as in BC, Alberta, and Ontario—across the country." However, he said, "When you revive someone from an opiate overdose, if they were using opiates because they were addicted, they're still addicted when they're saved with naloxone—they're very likely to overdose again if the underlying addiction disorder isn't treated... We need to be in a position to offer [effective treatment]."
Last year in Alberta, close to 300 people died due to fentanyl—within the province, much of the drug available on the streets is a bootleg version believed to derive from China that is commonly pressed into blue-green pills meant to look like OxyContin.
Parkinson referenced bootleg fentanyl that has cropped up in at least eight communities across Ontario, including confirmed presence of the synthetic opiate in heroin, cocaine, and meth within the province.
"My advice is to assume the drugs you are taking could contain bootleg fentanyl," he said.
Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter.