Richmond Mental Health & Substance Use leaders issued an alert Thursday morning to all drug users in the community – especially youth – who may be in danger of overdose even though they use drugs only “recreationally.”
“Youth who use party drugs are at-risk for opioid overdose and they may not even know it,” said Karen Barclay, program manager, Community Mental Health & Substance Use. “Typically these youth don’t consider themselves drug users, but the cocaine, ecstasy or molly they are taking at parties is now frequently laced with the opioid, fentanyl.”
Even small doses of fentanyl can suppress breathing and cause overdose, resulting in severe brain damage and death. While the dangers of fentanyl-laced heroin is well known across the Lower Mainland, recreational drug users — especially youth — have been slower to realize that party drugs, too, have become increasingly laced with fentanyl.
Barclay’s warning came as part of an announcement that Richmond Hospital is now equipped with take-home naloxone kits (THN kits) to offer to patients at risk of overdose.
Take-home naloxone kits have been available at Anne Vogel Clinic since last year, and will be available at Transitions in the coming weeks. The kits are also available through the Richmond Acute Home Based Treatment Team (Mobile Withdrawal Management) and from the Richmond Mental Health Team.
Passing out at parties is nothing new, but party deaths are occurring because people are confusing the need to “sleep it off” with an opioid overdose. The mix-up is proving deadly. “It is essential that people in this state not be left alone,” said Barclay. “We need to ensure anyone who uses party drugs also has immediate access to naloxone.”
Naloxone works to block opioid receptors and restores breathing within 2 to 5 minutes. Naloxone does not cause a high, and cannot be abused as it has no effect on the body in the absence of opioids.
Since January, 242 substance-use overdoses have presented at the Richmond Hospital Emergency Department, up from 190 for the same time frame the year previous. Of the 242 incidents this year, 47 were opioid-related.
“Even a single person dying of an overdose represents someone who has suffered a premature death and a family who has lost a loved one,” said VCH Richmond’s Medical Health Officer Dr. Meena Dawar. “We want to help every Richmond transition into treatment and care.”
Within the next few months, all 14 urgent care centres and emergency departments in the Vancouver Coastal Health region will have naloxone in stock for nurses and doctors to give to patients on discharge.
Having naloxone kits widely available is one of the initiatives underway to help address the public health emergency related to the rising number of drug-related overdoses and deaths. From Jan. 1, 2016 to Aug. 20, 2016 there were 3,775 illicit or unknown drug overdoses recorded at VCH emergency departments. Nearly one-quarter of them (882) were opioid-related.
“The rising number of overdose deaths is alarming,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Health Officer and the Vice President, Public Health for VCH. “Our staff are implementing a comprehensive response plan focusing on attacking the issue from several angles – preventing overdoses, encouraging safer drug use, and providing treatment options for people with substance use disorders.”