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Opioids, legal or not, can kill; It’s time for action


By Dr. Peter Selby, Chief of Addictions and Director of Medical Education at CAMH

In the past few weeks, the media has covered a spate of tragic deaths from overdose due to fentanyl, a very potent opioid, some 50 times stronger than morphine. What’s more is that new research shows skyrocketing prescription rates and illegally produced opioids are accessible across the country.

Overdose deaths are needless and entirely preventable; it’s time to take action.

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day that acknowledges the grief felt by families and friends who have lost loved ones to drug overdose. It is also an opportunity to discuss life-saving solutions, and in this blog, I would like to highlight one specific method for preventing death due to opioid drug overdose.


We do have an antidote for opioid overdose. It’s called naloxone and is a proven medication that reverses the effects of opioids almost immediately by blocking opioid receptors in the brain. It’s safe, can’t be abused, and has been a trusted solution in hospital and paramedic settings for decades. Most importantly, in places where it’s been distributed widely – not just to paramedics or opioid users but also to their friends and family – naloxone has helped stem fatal overdoses.

Naloxone buys time until the person can be taken to the emergency department for further treatment or observation.

In Ontario, we’ve begun to improve access to naloxone kits, but we have a long way to go. Ideally, these kits would be as accessible and easy to use as an EpiPen.  A recent report called Prescription For Life has made a number of recommendations on making naloxone more widely available. It’s a great contribution to this discussion about reducing opioid-related harms.

In February 2014, following the death of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, my colleague Dr. Lisa Lefebvre was interviewed by the Globe and Mail. In this video, she discusses the signs of opioid overdose and how naloxone can be used to save lives.

Solving the opioid crisis will not be easy. Strategies have been proposed at both the provincial and national levels, but much work remains. In the meantime we can – and must – start doing a better job of preventing overdose deaths by putting effective treatment in the hands of families and friends of those using opioids.

Effective and lasting solutions will require not only the health and criminal justice systems, but all of society to get involved. Pay tribute to International Overdose Awareness Day by learning more about overdose prevention with the resources below:

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