International Overdose Awareness Day is Friday and Central Alberta AIDS Network Society is working to break silence.
Over the last 12 months, CAANS gathered anecdotal data that showed 20 accidental overdoses — including nine deaths — among people known to the local charity.
Eight of the overdoses were women, including three fatalities.
“We’ve had three in the last two weeks, one that’s been fatal,” said Jennifer Vanderschaeghe, CAANS executive director, on Thursday.
The latest overdoses were linked to heroin, she said.
“The heroin in town right now is very pure. But it’s being sold at the same cost so people think it’s the same stuff that’s been here. They are using more than they need to and they’re not using testers.”
Last year in Alberta, 387 people died due to an accidental overdose from acute drug and/or drug and alcohol toxicity, according to preliminary data from the office of Alberta’s chief medical examiner.
Of those deaths, 45 per cent were Albertans living outside of Calgary and Edmonton.
Vanderschaeghe said data shows overdose deaths in Alberta have been climbing steadily over the years.
She said in Alberta, the number of deaths from overdoses is comparable to deaths from vehicle collisions.
“I continue to be shocked by the range and frequency of people who are overdosing. Even one death is too many.”
She said it’s important that nobody feels shame or disgrace over a drug overdose. It’s time to reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths and acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends.
About 50 per cent of overdose deaths occur when people start using again after a break because of being in hospital, jail, detox, or stopping for other reasons, she said.
“What happens is your body’s tolerance to the drug changes, it actually goes down, and people use the same amount as they were using before the break.”
Overdoses also happen when the drugs are not as pure, causing people to use more.
Vanderschaeghe said that people often don’t call 911 because they fear police will respond and they’ll be charged with drug possession.
“When we talk to people who use drugs, that’s a substantial issue.”
She said most overdoses are from opiates and a pilot program in Edmonton allows opiate drug users to access the anti-opiate naloxone that blocks receptors in the brain to bring people out of an overdose. Naloxone doesn’t harm people who are not experiencing an overdose.
“That is a program that would be really exciting to have in Central Alberta.”
Today, CAANS is commemorating International Overdose Awareness Day with community speakers, a sharing circle and barbecue at Rotary Park, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free.
International Overdose Awareness Day originated in Australia in 2001.