Federal government approves emergency funding for opioid crisis

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A deputy chief at St. Albert Fire Services says federal funding to tackle the opioid crisis in Alberta is good news.

Percy Janke, deputy chief of administration and planning at St. Albert Fire Services, said there is an increase in fentanyl use within St. Albert and any federal funding is a positive step.

“It has become more prevalent in terms of our overdoses in the last couple of years for sure,” he says. “It’s truly positive news that this is happening. You look at numbers and reports, you see the numbers and they’re significant.”

The federal government announced $6 million in emergency funding to tackle the opioid crisis in Alberta on March 10. It is not yet known where the funding will go.

Marie Renaud, MLA for St. Albert, says she was pleased with the announcement.

“I think any sort of help is good. I think we obviously have a huge crisis, all across Canada really, and I’m happy to get any help that we can.”

When Renaud first learned that fentanyl, and now carfentanil, were found in St. Albert, she says she was “horrified.”

“It’s just such a deadly drug and to hear that it’s so easily available to people, to children, is terrifying and that such a small amount can kill someone.”

The federal money came four days after an emergency debate by Alberta MLAs on how to stop the increase of opioid-related deaths across the province.

While the opposition party wanted Alberta to declare a public health emergency in response to the opioid crisis, Renaud says she disagrees.

“Calling a state of emergency wouldn’t have necessarily given us the power to stop this, and I don’t think this is a 30-day problem. This is a long-term problem.”

It hasn’t been determined how the funds will be allocated, but Renaud says the money will likely be used in a three-pronged approach: treatment, prevention and harm reduction.

Last year there were 343 fentanyl-related deaths across Alberta, up from 257 deaths in 2015.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, which is used as a powerful painkiller or anesthetic. The drug is similar to morphine, but is 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Drug Institute website.

Dr. Nicholas Etches, opioid expert with Alberta Health Services, says no one chooses to have an addiction to fentanyl.

“Many people are using drugs to deal with past issues, trauma-related issues as an example, previous abuse as another example, and they often use drugs to cope with negative emotions that can come from these experiences,” he explains.

It takes as little as two milligrams of fentanyl to cause an overdose, the equivalent of two grains of salt.

Fentanyl is an opioid that binds with receptors in the brain that deal with pain and emotion. As a result, dopamine levels increase and the user feels positive emotions, such as euphoria and relaxation.

When too much is consumed, fentanyl will cause the brain to stop communicating with the lungs, and the user will stop breathing.

In order to reduce fentanyl-related deaths, naloxone kits are being provided to those who are at risk of an overdose.

When naloxone is administered, the same receptors in the brain will instead bind with the naloxone. It doesn’t activate the receptors, but instead acts as a buffer between the opioid and the receptor. The brain will then ‘wake up’ and tell the lungs to start breathing again.

However, this is only temporary.

The lifespan of naloxone is much shorter than fentanyl, so when it wears off, the user is still in danger of an overdose. That’s why it’s important to also call emergency services.

In February the Alberta government expanded the naloxone program across Alberta, providing kits to first responders across the province.

Janke says the fire department has had naloxone available long before it was announced that first responders would carry the kits, since St. Albert firefighters are also trained EMTs and paramedics.

He says first responders go through extensive training to prepare themselves mentally and physically for emergency situations.

But there’s no denying the stress that first responders deal with afterwards.

“Places tend to have critical incidents stress management programs in place and programs identifying mental health issues. We’re definitely on the same pathway that other locations are on. It’s not a unique problem to any location,” he says.

He wouldn’t say whether any firefighters in St. Albert have dealt with the emotional aftermath of handling an overdose situation.

Renaud says the funding could potentially go towards more programs such as the naloxone program, as well as treatment and recovery beds and prevention.

She says a main element of the opioid crisis is mental health.

“You have to look at the root cause of this, and obviously it’s tied to mental health. Mental health and substance abuse are very real, they’re prominent problems,” Renaud says.

The $6 million came in addition to a 10-year funding agreement between Alberta and Ottawa. The agreement promised $1.3 billion to address mental health and home care needs across the province.

Renaud said she’s happy with the agreement and that she doesn’t think there’s enough of these services available in St. Albert.

“They don’t have home care to go home and they don’t have the mental health support in a timely fashion,” she says. “When you’re dealing with an acute mental illness, you need that treatment quickly. So no, we can always do better and we need to do better and it’s just beginning.”

Under the agreement, $703.2 million will go towards better home care, including addressing critical home-care infrastructure requirements and $586 million will go towards supporting mental health initiatives.

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Dayla Lahring

Dayla Lahring joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2017. She writes about business, health, general news and features. She also contributes photographs.