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Interior Health responding to rising overdose incidents and fentanyl use

Interior Health has begun taking steps to track opioid overdoses in the South Okanagan.
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July 13, 2016 - 6:00 PM

PENTICTON - Interior Health has begun to collect data regarding drug overdoses in Penticton and the South Okanagan as the agency responds to reports of rising incidents of drug use elsewhere in the province.

Interior Health’s Lori Motluk says Penticton has a well-established needle exchange program throughout the community. In addition, as a part of Interior Health's overdose response, the expansion of the Take Home Naloxone (THN) program has resulted in all emergency rooms in the health authority's region offering naloxone kits to patients being treatedat hospital for an opiod overdose.

“It’s been rolled out and is doing quite well. Users can come into emergency rooms, community clinics, and our contract facilities which include mental health clinics, and aboriginal friendship centres,” she says, adding Interior Health is also working with the First Nations Health Authority.

Interior Health Chief Executive Officer Chris Mazurkewich says the program is still “in process.”

“It’s not done yet, but the program is being spread out amongst many groups and is more widespread than it was 45 days ago,” he says.

According to Mazurkewich, Interior Health hasn’t seen any evidence of a spike in drug use, or increasing use of the needle exchange program.

Both Penticton Fire Department and City of Penticton outdoor maintenance staff would appear to agree with that observation, as neither agency reports a verifiable increase in needle pickups in the city.

However, City Communications Officer Tina Lee says the evidence is anecdotal.

“The city does not formally track needle pickups by our maintenance staff in parks and other public areas, so it is difficult to confirm actual numbers or trends,” she says, adding staff comments indicate there might be a slight increase in pickups in the downtown area.

Interior Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Silvina Mema, says Interior Health only began collecting opioid overdose data from some of the health agency’s emergency departments in June, including Penticton Regional and South Okanagan General Hospital, with the intention of expanding to all emergency departments by the end of July.

She says to date there have been no reports of individuals being treated for an opioid overdose in South Okanagan hospitals.

Mema also notes substances involved in an overdose generally go unconfirmed.

“We do collect data on the substances believed to have been used, but previous studies tell us often illicit drugs are not what the user believes them to be - this is often the case with fentanyl,” she says.

Mazurkewich says Interior Health is seeing heightened inquiries for available services as a result of publicity about the fentanyl overdose.

“One part of the question is harm reduction, the other is “can I get off it?” he says.

Mazurkewich says emergency room staff do their best to identify overdose patients, follow up and provide advice.

“Knowledge is increasing, people do understand the risk,” he says, adding the Okanagan has experienced overdose spikes in the past, in the late 1990s and a mini-spike in 2007-08.

“There is always something that comes into play that we need to watch for, it’s fentanyl this time, but this isn’t the first time,” he says.

- This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. July 14 to correct information regarding the Take Home Naxalone (THN) program.

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