Ontario can’t afford to fumble on the opioid crisis

Posted on in Health Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
Sept. 6, 2018.   By

Six weeks into her review of the “merit” of supervised injection and overdose prevention sites, Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott would have to be wilfully deaf not to hear the loud and clear message from health care experts across the country, indeed around the world. It’s simply this: these facilities save lives.

That is quite obviously the first step toward the “rehabilitation” that Elliott and Premier Doug Ford say they want to ensure addicts can access. As NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has put it: “People can’t get treatment if they are dead.”

Still, the government is wasting precious time while the national crisis of opioid addiction and overdose worsens. It needs to quickly complete its review of the clinics and redouble efforts to stem this growing, deadly epidemic.

After all, if Ontario fumbles the ball it will be a huge blow to national efforts to turn the tide on this scourge. Last year nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses. Fully 1,100 of those were in Ontario, with more than 300 in Toronto alone. That was a 63-per-cent increase in the number of deaths from the previous year.

The situation is clearly dire. Still, the Ford government is taking its sweet time on the review. Worse, in mid-August it further endangered lives by freezing funding to three new overdose prevention sites that were scheduled to open.

That could have a “fatal impact” on addicts’ lives, according to the more than 850 doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, harm reduction and front-line workers who signed an open letter to the Ford government this week expressing concern about the funding freeze.

Indeed, a delay in opening just one site, never mind three, could result in scores of deaths in a single year. Staff at The Works, a supervised injection site operated by Toronto Public Health, for example, reversed 213 overdoses in the first year it was open. And in just nine months staff at a temporary facility in Toronto’s Moss Park reversed more than 200.

At the same time, the facilities reduced the risk of addicts catching needle-transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.

No wonder the health care professionals warn in their letter that the “government’s lack of urgency in dealing with this crisis is negligent and inhumane.”

Sadly, it could get worse. Elliott says the future of eight other temporary overdose sites, funded until the end of September, depends on the outcome of her review and, more ominously, on “whether the premier decides to continue with sites or not.”

That puts a big question mark over whether the government intends to make a truly evidence-based decision on the future of overdose prevention sites and harm reduction programs. Regardless of the results of Elliott’s review, Ford could well stick by his ill-informed election promise to close down all harm-reduction sites across the province.

That is a “terrifying” scenario, according to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, whose city is ground zero of Canada’s opioid overdose epidemic. “I can only imagine the cost of human lives here if that happens,” he told the Star’s editorial board this week.

Robertson should know. Although Vancouver’s population is only about a quarter of Toronto’s, 366 people from all walks of life died of overdoses there last year.

Indeed, if the “community members” Elliott is consulting with are concerned about the supposed “chaos” around drug injection sites that some have complained about, they should consider the alternative. That is people dying of overdoses on the streets outside their homes.

“This is a human catastrophe,” warned Robertson. “We need to ensure these addictions are not terminal.”

Ford and Elliott should heed this strong warning.

It’s time for the minister to wrap up her review and spell out a plan for Ontario to help stop this epidemic in its tracks.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 12th, 2018 at 10:00 am and is filed under Health Debates. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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