Saint John conference discusses Canada's growing opioid crisis
Canada's growing opioid crisis was the focus of a 'Harm Reduction Symposium' held Saturday in Saint John, and those on the front lines say the discussion is being held at a crucial time,
Nurses, social workers, doctors, even former addicts came together this weekend at the Saint John Regional Hospital, for the first 'Harm Reduction Symposium' held in the province.
"A multi-disciplinary approach, not one program or one department can solve some of these issues, we really have to work together," says public health nurse Penny Higdon.
The Harm Reduction Symposium aims to give experts the chance to collaborate on how to better help people with opioid addictions. The large crowd at the symposium adds evidence to the mounting public health crisis affecting the country.
"It's moving from that approach of expecting people to abstain from drugs, alcohol or other behaviours and say how can we meet people where they are at and that's the harm reduction approach," explains Sarah Gander, a pediatrician with Horizon Health.
According to data from the Public Healthy Agency of Canada, 2016 saw 90 opioid related deaths in Atlantic Canada; 53 in Nova Scotia, 32 in New Brunswick and five in Prince Edward Island.
Across Canada, there were 2861 opioid related deaths in 2016, but there is concern that number is rising. At least 1460 Canadians died from opioid related overdoses in the first half of 2017, and experts say that number is expected to rise this year.
As the crisis escalates from West to East, health care professionals say those on the front lines have to be prepared.
Julie Dingwell runs 'Avenue B Harm Reduction', a safe needle distribution service in Saint John, and says she's seen the crisis grow first hand.
"We've certainly seen more overdose deaths and our number of needles that we are providing has increased by almost 100,000 in a year and a half period," explains Dingwell.
"I think there's been a knee jerk reaction when the new physician guidelines came out to cut people off their opioids or to prescribe to a certain amount," explains Natasha Touesnard, a former addict now working as Harm Reduction Coordinator at Hand Up.
"What happens is people are on prescription opioids for pain or other issues, and by cutting them off of that supply, they are forced into an illegal market," continues Touesnard.
A number of measures have been implemented to counteract the growing number of overdose deaths, including safe injection sites, and increased access to the rescue medication Naloxone.
However, experts say it's too early for these programs to have much effect, and all levels of government need to work together.
The Federal government will be announcing new federal measures to increase access to opioid treatment this Monday in Ottawa.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Mary Cranston.