Canadian Red Cross joins fight to reduce opioid casualties

Topics: National
OTTAWA | March 29, 2021

Poisoning response training and naloxone distribution system will target underserved communities
The Canadian Red Cross is welcoming participation in a Health Canada initiative announced today that is aimed at reducing opioid-related death by increasing Canadians’ access to opioid poisoning response training and a life-saving medication that buys those affected enough time for medical attention.
Specifically, Red Cross is receiving $7.9 million from Health Canada’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) to work in coordination with St. John Ambulance to deliver opioid poisoning response training in all provinces and territories, except Quebec – where similar programming is in place.  The agreement also calls on Red Cross and St. John to develop and maintain parallel distribution systems to provide Canadians outside of Quebec with ready access to naloxone, a medication that temporarily reverses some life-threatening effects of opioid poisoning – such as slowed breathing and loss of consciousness.
A primary focus of the project is to reach people at risk for opioid poisoning in underserved, remote, rural or Indigenous communities – together with those with whom they are likely to come into contact, such as shelter and housing workers, disaster workers, retailers and schoolteachers.
“In our every-day work to help vulnerable people, we have seen first-hand how the opioid crisis is devastating Canadian families and communities,” says Conrad Sauvé, President and CEO of the Canadian Red Cross.  “We are pleased and eager to bring the strength of Red Cross to an effort we see as vital to addressing a very complex health and social issue.”    
Opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and many others.
Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a clinician, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused when taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed.
Regular use can lead to dependence and, when misused, lead to addiction, opioid poisoning incidents and death. Increasingly, Canada’s illegal supply has become tainted with powerful opioids, such as fentanyl.
Between January 2016 and June 2020 there were 17,602 apparent opioid toxicity deaths in Canada. Ninety-seven per cent happened by accident. 
Adding to the concern is a spike in opioid-related deaths since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That should come as no surprise given COVID-19 research – including our own – that has repeatedly shown Canadians dealing with increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, job uncertainty and depression,” says Sauvé.  “It is easy to envision the extra difficulty that would pose to someone with existing vulnerabilities, such as substance-use.”
While Sauvé does not see any single solution to the crisis, he believes training to identify and respond to opioid poisoning is a critical component.   “Above all else, it seeks to keep Canadians alive while work continues to address root causes.”
Over the next 39 months, Red Cross expects to provide opioid poisoning response training to 1.5 million Canadians while helping millions more gain an increased understanding of the risks, misconceptions and vulnerabilities of opioid misuse. 
At Red Cross, the project will be delivered in three phases, beginning this Spring with integration of the response training into its existing first aid and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation programming. 
The second phase, slated for later in 2021, will see both Red Cross and St. John providing specific opioid poisoning response training and ready naloxone access to targeted, under-served populations identified through research now underway under the direction of Dr. Aaron Orkin, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto.
The third phase of the project will see Red Cross and St. John create complimentary programs to provide Canadians access to self-directed online response training and the procurement of naloxone kits.   That training is expected to be available in early 2022.
About the Canadian Red Cross
Here in Canada and overseas, the Red Cross stands ready to help people before, during and after a disaster. As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – which is made up of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and 192 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies – the Canadian Red Cross is dedicated to helping people and communities in Canada and around the world in times of need and support them in strengthening their resilience.
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