Combatting overdose in the capital

The man’s face was purple. The whites of his eyes stared out, the pupils rolled back into his head. He was sweating profusely, his tongue hanging from his mouth.

When Sean LeBlanc opened the door to the rooming house hallway last summer, it was clear to the former addict what was happening.

“It was an opiate overdose,” he said. “I’d seen it before.”

LeBlanc sprang into action. He grabbed a naloxone kit — a device similar to an EpiPen — and injected the life-saving antidote into his friend’s shoulder.

It took less than 15 seconds for LeBlanc to empty the tiny vial and remove the retractable safety needle.

“Thanks to the naloxone training I could bring him back.”

He’s one of 93 people who have gone through Ottawa Public Health’s Peer Overdose Prevention Program (POPP) — one of the free harm reduction strategies available in the capital. It launched two years ago to coincide with the annual International Overdose Awareness Day, marked in Ottawa Friday at the Human Rights Monument at 11:30 a.m.

Toronto is the only other city in the province to have a similar program.

Less than a decade before, LeBlanc woke up chained to a bed, himself a survivor of a crack overdose thanks to some quick thinking of friends.

“It was terrifying. It really put things in perspective for me,” said the 40-year-old.

LeBlanc turned to drugs as a 23-year-old university student when his partner died. First it was alcohol, then dilaudid, and then at one party someone had the syringes and LeBlanc was hooked.

“The opiates dulled all the pain.”

He was homeless at one point, shoplifting to support his habit. He even spent time in jail.

“I was just lucky I survived my addiction,” said LeBlanc, adding that it wasn’t until the death of a best friend three years ago that he got clean.

He said his friend’s death was classified as respiratory failure, and while medically accurate, it doesn’t paint a true picture of the problem.

On average, 40 people in Ottawa die annually due to overdose; overdoses also result in about 115 hospitalizations, according to 2014 Ottawa Public Health figures.

“I see so much lost potential,” said LeBlanc who founded the Drug User Advocacy League in 2010 to improve safety and education around drug consumption. “These are really intelligent, lovely people, who are never able to recover from that mistake.”

For Wendy Muckle, executive director of Ottawa Inner City Health, treatment involves a variety of strategies.

“The thing with overdose prevention is that there’s no one thing that’s the silver bullet that’s going to keep everybody safe,” said Muckle, whose organization provides care for homeless people in Ottawa who are often struggling with both mental illness and addiction and are at high risk for drug use and overdose.

“You have to have different kinds of strategies that target different populations.”

That should include safe injection sites, she said, but also the naloxone kits — her organization uses about one each month — as well as education around safer drug options, treatment, and needle exchange.

It’s key to try to dissuade use of injection drugs, she said, which carry greater risk of hepatitis C and HIV. Ottawa Public Health has wide estimates for the number of people in Ottawa using needles — at least 1,200 and perhaps as many as 5,600, according to most recent numbers.

Those numbers are supported by a provincial study that found opioid-related deaths exploded by 242 per cent between 1991 and 2010. The biggest jump was among young adults aged 25 to 34: In 2010, opioids were responsible for 12 per cent of all deaths, up from three per cent of all deaths in 1992. In 2012, Ontario had the highest rate of prescription narcotic use in Canada.

It was only recently that the province launched a strategy to better track the problem, said Rob Boyd, who has helped to organize the awareness day for the past four years.

Though Ottawa is still a crack town, Boyd says, he’s seen a rise in opioid use — often heroine, morphine, oxycodone or fentanyl — in the past five to 10 years.

“Suddenly overdose has become a much bigger issue than it has in the past,” said Boyd, who works for Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, which also just finished training its staff how to administer naloxone.

Boyd said the common image of those at risk for overdose doesn’t fly.

“If you are prescribed opiates, you are at risk of an opiate overdose,” said Boyd, adding that often those using opioids — such as parents and high school students — can be hard to reach. “There’s so much misinformation and so much stigma associated with substance abuse, it becomes a real challenge getting the correct information to people who need it.”

Although Muckle notes the issue can be polarizing, she said it’s important to have a day set aside to encourage conversation.

“(It’s) a really good opportunity for us as a community to begin the process of having respectful and intelligent discussions about how as a community we can mitigate against damages that addiction drug use causes to both individuals and communities.”

By Samantha Wright Allen
Source: Ottawa Citizen