EDMONTON — A group of University of Alberta graduate students is calling for action to reduce the growing number of people who are dying from fentanyl overdoses.
Student Advocates for Public Health is encouraging support for Health Canada’s proposal to allow people to obtain the drug naloxone — which can reverse the effects of an overdose — without a prescription.
“We see that more than 270 Albertans have died needlessly in fentanyl-related deaths,” said Rhoda Lee, who is working on her masters degree in nursing.
“As students we have an interest in public health and healthy public policy and we decided that the fentanyl crisis is an issue that needs to be dealt with.”
Fentanyl is an opiod that is many times more powerful than heroin.
The Alberta figure of 270 fentanyl-related deaths is for 2015 — more than double the previous year.
The Canadian Centre For Substance Abuse estimates that at least 655 people have died across Canada from overdoses where fentanyl was the cause or a contributing cause between 2009 and 2014. A more up-to-date number was not available.
Naloxone kits that include a syringe and vials of the drug are already being distributed in some provinces.
The students want the pharmaceutical industry and Ottawa to allow the drug to be sold in forms that are easier to use, such as a nasal spray and an auto-injector device similar to an EpiPen.
“We believe that this would help people find an easier way, rather than fumbling with needles and ampules, to be able to administer this drug quickly,” Lee said.
The group also supports a federal private member’s bill that calls for protecting people who phone 911 to report drug overdoses from facing charges.
Liberal MP Ron McKinnon introduced Bill C-224 in the Commons last month and hopes it will come up for debate this spring.
The legislation aims to encourage a person who sees someone having an overdose to call for help immediately.
McKinnon said he is grateful for the student endorsement and hopes other groups across Canada will support the proposed Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.
“I love to hear this,” McKinnon said from his constituency office in Port Coquitlam, B.C.
“We are looking at organizations like cities to come on board. The more people who see this and recognize the value of it and speak up the better.”
McKinnon said in the United States, 34 states and the District of Columbia have some form of Good Samaritan overdose immunity law.
Health Canada’s website says the department is seeking public comment on a proposal to allow the non-prescription use of naloxone.
The deadline for making a submission is March 19.