It is the antidote to fentanyl and other opioids.
And a new program to get naloxone to drug users may have already saved two lives in Winnipeg.
When it is injected, naloxone competes with opioids for receptors in your body. That means it can counteract an overdose if used in time.
The province and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority have been distributing naloxone kits through its Street Connections program for free to people injecting opioids. It is part of a task force the province set up to tackle the emergence of fentanyl in Manitoba.
Dr. Joss Reimer says 40 naloxone kits have been given out over the past four months. Two have been used to successfully counteract overdoses.
“We were extremely excited to have heard about that so early on in our program… Whether or not they would have died is difficult to say, but certainly we know that we potentially saved a life and prevented other bad outcomes from happening in those circumstances,” she said.
Reimer couldn’t say whether or not the drug taken in those situations was fentanyl.
The kits cost about $35 each. Reimer says the demand for them has exceeded expectations. They based their estimates on a similar program in Edmonton, where they give out about 80 kits per year. If demand stays city, Winnipeg is on pace to give out 120 in 2016.
“Saving a life once in every 20 times that you use a kit is a remarkably cost-effective program. These kits only cost about $35 each, so to have spent about $700 to save a life is quite remarkable in the health care system,” Reimer said.
This particular program is aimed only at those considered high-risk – people who inject opioids. But Reimer is hoping to expand it to other drug users, as fentanyl can be hidden in other drugs as a cutting agent. People may not know they are taking it.
They also want to expand outside Winnipeg to all regions, particularly in rural areas where it’s more difficult to get first responders to someone overdosing in a timely manner.
Reimer doesn’t know exactly how the expansion would work yet.
“We may do it through public health programs or possibly through clinics or community organizations. There are a lot of ideas on the table and we want to make sure since we’re planning this from scratch that we do it in a way that makes sense for the province as a whole,” she said.
Naloxone has always been available by prescription through a doctor, but Reimer says many drug users don’t have resources to access it.
Health Canada recently changed the rules so that naloxone will be available without a prescription. Reimer says pharmacists are working on how it could be distributed going forward.