Opioid overdoses are a growing problem. Between January and July 2016, there were 433 overdose deaths in BC — an over 70 per cent increase from last year.
To help combat the crisis, UBC Health Services began distributing Naloxone — the opioid antidote — to students.
Opioids are an addictive class of pain-relief drugs which includes morphine, heroin and fentanyl. Opioids work by interacting with proteins called opioid receptors on the surface of cells. When opioids interact with receptors in the brainstem, they cause a decrease in a person's drive to breathe. Large enough doses of opioids can cause someone to stop breathing completely — an opioid overdose.
Adam Lund, an emergency physician and a clinical associate professor at UBC, is the physician lead for the take-home Naloxone program at the Royal Columbian Hospital.
“The main concern with opioids are a decrease in the level of consciousness and respiratory drive,” said Lund. “We want to make sure that somebody has an open airway and is breathing adequately.”
Naloxone is an antidote to opioids. It strongly binds to opioid receptors, without exerting the effect of opioids on the body. It essentially works to push opioids off their receptors, blocking them from activation.
“Within a couple of minutes, their level of consciousness increases and their respiratory rate improves,” explained Lund. “You'll also see people get their pain back, vomit [and become] aggressive because you've now pushed them into withdrawal.”
Jane Buxton, a professor at UBC's School of Population and Public Health, led the creation of the take-home Naloxone program in BC in 2012.
“I set up the take-home Naloxone program following an increase in overdose deaths in 2011,” explained Buxton. “We've had over 2,000 reports of Naloxone being used from our program. We know we've saved lives.”
While some people are concerned that take-home Naloxone may enable addicts, Buxton said that those concerns are not reflected in the evidence.
“[Take-home Naloxone] does not increase people's use. It often has the opposite effect. Often when somebody has been trained, they may reduce their use and make sure they are not using at the same time as their friends,” said Buxton. They are like a designated driver.
It is important to keep in mind that take-home Naloxone is not a comprehensive solution to the opioid crisis.
“Giving [Naloxone] is not a magic bullet,” said Lund. A holistic approach to this public health problem is needed.