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A multi-pronged approach is needed to reduce Central Alberta’s opioid deaths, says Friends of Medicare

‘Six people dying from an overdose in this province every single day isn’t a success’
Naloxone is an antidote for opiate overdoses. (Black Press file photo/ Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.)

With on-going opioid overdose deaths in Central Alberta, the complex problem must be fought on all fronts — there’s no one-way solution, says the former director of Red Deer’s Turning Point.

Stacey Carmichael agrees with public health care advocacy group Friends of Medicare, who put out a release stating that the UCP government’s one-track “recovery method” of care is not working.

As of the end of April, 613 people died of opioid-related causes in Alberta.

Of these, 16 deaths happened in Red Deer, according to the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System. Seven people died in April, and three died in each of the first three months of the year.

“The government needs to remember that there can be no recovery if you’re dead,” noted Chris Gallaway, the group’s executive director.

Friends of Medicare are critical of the provincial government spending millions to fund mainly private, for-profit facilities while putting a hold on, or reducing, harm reduction programs— including on-site drug consumption sites. The UCP’s recovery model of care, which focuses on drug treatment, was also adopted as a policy by the City of Red Deer.

Carmichael agrees this province needs more addiction treatment programs — but she also believes Alberta needs more overdose prevention programs.

“We absolutely need more harm reduction and we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t work. You need it all. You can’t replace one thing with another,” said Carmichael, who ran overdose prevention programs in Red Deer before moving the Slave Lake last spring to work with the homeless population in Northern Alberta.

Data shows that only a small percentage of drug-addicted people can clean up and do abstinence, “as much as we would like them to,” she added. “If every single one of them could just pull up their socks, they would.”

Carmichael heard from doctors that 80 to 90 per cent of people who go through a drug treatment program will relapse. Many opioid addicts are also struggling with serious mental illnesses. Some have heart programs that make it difficult for them to go through regular drug treatment.

Friends of Medicare point to the record-breaking overdose deaths in Alberta this spring as proof the government’s approach to the drug crisis is failing. “Six people dying from an overdose in this province every single day isn’t a success. This is an unmitigated crisis and we need the new Minister to start treating it like one,” Gallaway added.

The group is concerned about the pressure this puts on the public health care system, particularly on hospital emergency rooms. “It’s time for this government to start actually listening to front-line organizations and health care workers, and to respond to this crisis with an evidence-based public health approach,” said Gallaway.

Hunter Baril, spokesperson for the minster of mental health and addictions, said “the numbers clearly show that there is more work to do here in Alberta, but they also show that the (harm reduction) approach of other provinces like British Columbia do not prevent fatalities at even higher rates.

“No matter how long someone has been experiencing addiction, they deserve the opportunity to pursue recovery,” added Baril. He noted that the Alberta government has been investing in 11 new recovery communities, of which Red Deer is the first to open.

Albertans also have access to same-day treatment through the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, along with digital overdose response system, supervised consumption sites, free naloxone distribution, and sterile supplies, said Baril, who expressed condolences to the families who have lost loved ones to the opioid crisis.

Lana Michelin

About the Author: Lana Michelin

Lana Michelin has been a reporter for the Red Deer Advocate since moving to the city in 1991.
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