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.