Drug over­doses in­crease


The Haldimand- Nor­folk Health Unit wasn’t ex­ag­ger­at­ing last year when it warned about the threat of il­le­gal street drugs cut with pow­er­ful syn­thetic opi­oids.

Nor­folk paramedics re­sponded to 37 drug over­doses in all of 2014. This rose to 59 in 2015. In 2016, the to­tal was 90.

“These are only the num­ber of calls that were specif­i­cally dis­patched as drug over­doses and do not ac­count for other pri­mary prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with over­dose that the crews were sent to such as vital- signs- ab­sent, un­con­scious- un­re­spon­sive­ness, seizures, re­s­pi­ra­tory prob­lems or be­havioural- psy­chi­atric oc­cur­rences,” Sarah Townsend, Nor­folk’s man­ager of emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vices, said Jan. 6 in an up­date on opi­oid oc­cur­rences.

“As such, the num­ber of ac­tual drug over­doses – in­clud­ing opi­oid-re­lated over­doses – are likely much higher. Drug over­doses in 2016 quadru­pled in num­ber from Jan­uary to De­cem­ber com­par­a­tively.”

Much of para­medic ac­tiv­ity in Nor­folk re­lated to opi­oid abuse is cen­tred in Sim­coe. With a pop­u­la­tion of 15,000, Sim­coe is Nor­folk’s largest town and home to two methadone clin­ics for re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts.

Opi­oid abuse be­came a se­ri­ous prob­lem across North Amer­ica 10 years ago when doc­tors be­came more lib­eral in pre­scrib­ing the drugs for pain man­age­ment.

Oxycon­tin and its vari­a­tions soon be­came pop­u­lar recre­ational drugs. Many users were sur­prised to learn that the pills have the same ad­dic­tive prop­er­ties as heroin.

The stakes were raised in 2016 when syn­thetic opi­oids much more pow­er­ful than heroin arrived in North Amer­ica from Asia. Fen­tanyl and its more po­tent vari­ant car­fen­tanil are lethal at ex­tremely low doses.

The drugs are so pow­er­ful that some para­medic teams to­day re­spond to over­dose emer­gen­cies wear­ing full- face Ebola masks. There are con­cerns that in­hal­ing fen­tanyl or car­fen­tanil dust could prove lethal. There are also con­cerns about residue or dust get­ting on the skin of paramedics and be­ing ab­sorbed that way.

Syn­thetic opi­oids are in­ex­pen­sive to pro­duce. Drug traf­fick­ers will add them to co­caine, metham­phetamine and Ec­stasy to in­crease their po­tency.

Many over­dose vic­tims aren’t aware they have in­gested fen­tanyl or car­fen­tanil when they use drugs recre­ation­ally. Opi­oids kill by sup­press­ing the re­s­pi­ra­tory sys­tem to the point of col­lapse.

“We en­cour­age the com­mu­nity to be ex­tremely cau­tious with any street drug they en­counter as these danger­ous ad­di­tives can be un­known to users and po­ten­tially fa­tal,” Townsend said.

“In ad­di­tion, we are urg­ing friends, fam­ily and by­standers to call 911 early, re­port the drug over­dose to get rapid med­i­cal as­sis­tance to the pa­tient, and never al­low any un­known sub­stance on the scene to come in con­tact with their bare skin.”

In con­trast to Nor­folk County, paramedics in Haldimand rarely see drug over­doses. In all of 2016, Haldimand paramedics re­sponded to 12 opi­oid emer­gen­cies.

“While this is def­i­nitely an emerg­ing is­sue, our county has for­tu­nately not seen a sig­nif­i­cant spike,” Rob Grim­wood, Haldimand’s man­ager of emer­gency ser­vices, said.

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