When it comes to the opioid epidemic in Canada, there is no denying that the crisis has become a threat not just to public health and the economy, but also to families and communities. The national numbers paint a bleak picture with 4,460 deaths in 2018 alone, when broken down this number reflects the death of a Canadian every 1.96 hours.
Unfortunately, many experts believe that the opioid crisis would not peak for many years to come. Dr. Subrata Chakravarty, a specialist in Anesthesiology with College of Physician and Surgeons of Alberta, believes that the way out of this epidemic is for the federal and local officials to focus on treating patients with substance use disorder rather than punishing them. “Instead of targeting the drug supply coming from Mexico and China,” Dr. Chakravarty says, “we can reduce the demand right here at home and devote more resources to helping patients with substance use get better treatment.”
The Drugs behind the Opioid Crisis
While the nature of the opioid crisis is complex and its consequences are far-reaching, the problem itself, surprisingly, started with legal rather than illegal drugs. “We can trace the root of the problem,” Subrata Chakravarty says, “to the over prescription of painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. These legal drugs are just as addictive as their illicit counterparts, heroin and fentanyl.”
The reason both the legal and illegal opioids are addictive is that they all come from the simple poppy plant. At first, medications such as meperidine, methadone, and morphine were prescribed for patients with serious health conditions like cancer or those who have had surgery. They helped ease the patients’ pain and reduce their suffering. But over the years these same drugs were being prescribed to patients with chronic back pain or aching joints.
To say that this opened the door for drug addiction is an understatement. Soon, stronger drugs like cheap heroin and fentanyl were flooding the black market. What started as a dependence on prescription drugs turned into a full-blown opioid epidemic.
The Scale of the Problem
The past few years have seen a sharp increase in the number of people turning to synthetic drugs. To complicate things even further, both heroin coming from Mexico and fentanyl manufactured in China are used along with other recreational drugs. “Using illicit drugs,” Dr. Chakravarty says, “in combination with cocaine or alcohol increases the risk of a drug overdose and can be fatal.”
National statistics show that the death toll resulting from the opioid epidemic has been rising over the years. As pharmaceutical companies ramped up their marketing of legal opioids to treat chronic pain, physicians felt pressured to prescribe them. Compared to alternative therapies like acupuncture and physical therapy, prescription drugs are much cheaper and more convenient for patients. Unfortunately for many individuals, when the legal medication is no longer available, patients will seek illicit drugs to feed their opioid-related addiction.
The Consequences of the Epidemic
The opioid crisis has been raging on for years, but we are starting to see their effects on families and communities and the country as a whole only recently. Public health is where the consequences become more visible. Addiction to heroin has resulted in a spike in hepatitis C, HIV, and other contagious diseases due to drug users sharing syringes. Moreover, pregnant women with opioid addiction can pass the dependency on to their babies.
The economy too has seen a recent decline in labor participation among people in their working-age prime. Opioid dependency not only affects people’s productivity but also their ability and willingness to take a job at all. More and more employers are seeing job applicants failing drug tests as well as losing workers to the opioid epidemic.
Addiction has devastating effects on the community as well. The opioid crisis has led to families being torn apart and the overall decrease in the life expectancy of the nation.
Drug abuse affects people of all ages regardless of their socio-economic or cultural backgrounds. When combined with alcohol or other illicit drugs like cocaine, an overdose can become a high risk. Symptoms of overdose include difficulty in walking, talking or staying awake. Feeling dizzy or confused as well as having blue nails or lips are also signs of overdosing.
Dr. Subrata Chakravarty recommends that people who use opioids should not mix them with alcohol or other drugs. It is also important not to take drugs alone. Having a friend who detects the signs of an overdose can be the difference between a life and death situation. In addition, there is a drug that can help people survive an overdose. It is called naloxone.
Naloxone to the Rescue
When the body takes more than it can handle of an opioid, the brain loses its control over breathing. This can lead to slow or weak breathing. In severe cases, breathing might stop altogether. This is why naloxone is recommended to deal with drug overdoses.
“Naloxone has fast effects,” says Subrata Chakravarty. “It can relieve the symptoms of opioid overdose and restore the patient’s breathing functionality within minutes.” It comes in two forms, either as a nasal spray or as an injection. It is also available at pharmacies and health facilities without a prescription.
However, since naloxone wears off long before the other drugs, the symptoms might return. Another dose of naloxone might be needed before medical help arrives. The medication should be used as a first aid, not as a treatment in itself.
A Smartphone App that Detects an Overdose
Since breathing gets affected by a drug overdose, a new smartphone app can monitor a person’s breathing and detect an overdose. The app called Second Chance has been developed by the University of Washington and uses sonar with great accuracy to detect symptoms of an overdose.
The person doesn’t have to carry the phone all the time. This app can track and monitor a person three feet away. If the signs are detected, the app then connects to a friend or an emergency service. The speed and high detection rate (about 90 percent) can mean that people who fall victim to overdosing can have access to naloxone thus increasing their chances of survival.