Alberta sees record level of EMS calls for toxic drug poisonings in 5 weeks: data

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Few signs of progress in Canada’s drug death crisis leaving some with little hope for change
Few signs of progress in Canada’s drug death crisis leaving some with little hope for change – Apr 15, 2023

Alberta saw a record level of calls to Emergency Medical Services for opioid-related incidents in the past five weeks.

According to data on the province’s substance use surveillance system, EMS responses to opioid-related events spiked between the week of June 19 and the week of July 17.

The province said 277 calls were made in the week of June 19, but there was a record-setting number of responses during the week of July 3, when there were 358 calls to EMS for opioid-related incidents.

Around 336 calls and 286 calls were made during the weeks of July 10 and July 17, respectively.

Prior to this recent spike, the previous record was established during the week of Nov. 29, 2021 when there were 276 calls.

Monty Ghosh, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Cummings School of Medicine and an addictions specialist, said the spike is due to more potent toxic drugs entering Alberta’s drug supply.

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He told Global News health-care workers are seeing more and more overdoses from carfentanil, which is 50 times more toxic than fentanyl, and toxic benzodiazepines.

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“The combo of those different drugs is what’s so concerning right now … We’re seeing now a new deadly mix with carfentanil mixed in with the benzodiazepines, which is something that we have not yet seen before,” Ghosh said.

“It’s a change in the way that substances are being manufactured and distributed within our province.”

Ghosh said the majority of calls and overdoses are happening to people who are experiencing homelessness. The use of different types of drugs and exposure to the elements may have increased the chances of adverse effects of the toxic drugs.

“Those experiencing homelessness, who are outside, are at a higher risk of having poor outcomes,” he said.

Ghosh said encouraging drug users to test their drugs and to use harm-reduction resources will help prevent toxic drug deaths and overdoses.

Housing, income, mental health and recovery resources are also needed to prevent more toxic drug deaths, he said.

“These are all things that we kind of have to do in tandem with this population, but that’s still a tall order,” Ghosh said.

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When asked for comment on the latest numbers, Hunter Baril, the press secretary for Alberta’s mental health and addictions ministry, told Global News “the nationwide increase in drug use and overdoses further shows the need for a comprehensive, compassionate approach that offers the opportunity for anyone to pursue recovery.”

Baril said the provincial government is focused on expanding treatment capacity “by funding more addiction treatment spaces and building 11 new recovery communities throughout the province.”

“We are providing services such as drug-consumption sites and naloxone distribution alongside services such as the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, which offers same-day access to life-saving medication for those suffering from the deadly disease of addiction,” he said in a statement issued Thursday.

“These important initiatives will work with recovery communities and treatment programs to form the Alberta model, which is uniquely focused on helping Albertans pursue recovery, unlike what we see in other jurisdictions.”

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