London, Ont.-based Safer Opioid Supply Program reporting dramatic drop in overdoses among clients

An undated photo of fentanyl pills.
An undated photo of fentanyl pills. Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office

The Safer Opioid Supply (SOS) Program, run by the London InterCommunity Health Centre is showing positive results in client retention and a drop in overdoses.

The study on the SOS program showed that clients reported significant reductions in fentanyl use, as well in the use of other street-acquired drugs like crystal methamphetamine.

The program which started with funding from the Substance Use and Addictions Program used a harm reduction approach to address health risks like overdose related to contaminated drugs.

Read more: KFL&A Public Health warns of ‘shadow pandemic’ — the opioid crisis

Those participating in the program are given prescriptions for pharmaceutical opioids to replace street-acquired substances from the regional drug market, and are connected with a team of health care and outreach workers.

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“Harm reduction means you need to centre the voices of the people you are serving and I learned a lot of drug use can be linked to poverty, classism, colonialism, capitalism, structural violence and racism,” said Dr. Andrea Sereda who started the program.

“We worked hard to make sure we were growing the program with drug users really central to our team.”

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Sereda said their program is believed to be the first in Canada to provide people with a take-home safe consumption option, with other regions having since adopted a similar model.

Since April 2020, a study shows that 94 per cent of the clients remained in the program, with participants rising to 248 from 112 as of Sep. 30, 2021.

Sereda says the program was started out of a desperate need to stop people from dying from fentanyl overdoses in the London area.

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Read more: Half of Ontario opioid deaths interacted with health care system the month before: study

Before entering the program 59 per cent of people reported having overdosed in the last six months, but that number dropped to 23 per cent for those currently in it.

“If it wasn’t for this program, I really don’t think I’d be here right now… and feeling as healthy as I do,” said one client in the study.

Participants also reported an increase in their health, with 59 per cent of people in the program reporting improvement in their physical health since starting and 25 per cent reporting it stayed the same. Sixteen per cent of those participating did say their health has gotten worse.

Read more: Is the ‘War on Drugs’ over? Canada is seeing a ‘shift’ in its approach to drugs, experts say

The number of people visiting the emergency room also went from 77 per cent when they first entered the program to 45 per cent during participation.

Another noticeable difference was a drop in people committing crimes to afford drugs, going from 73 per cent before the program to 37 per cent during.

“We don’t have to go to the streets anymore to make our habit, to make money to pay for our pills. Since I’ve been on (the SOS program), I haven’t gone to jail in three and a half years. So, that’s a good thing. I’m pretty much not working (in sex work) at all anymore, so. It saved my life,” a client said in the report.

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The key issues clients reported were wait times to enter the program and the lack of doctors to administer it.

Looking at what is next, the study is making several recommendations, including providing more wrap-around services and expanding access so more people can participate.

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