With communities across Canada struggling with the ravages of opioid abuse, the Northwest Territories is seeing a $760,000 boost to improve treatment programs for remote and incarcerated clients.

MP Michael McLeod, left, Health Minister Glen Abernethy and treatment program lead Dr. Jennifer Harris announce new funding that will support expansion of the NWT’s opioid treatment program. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

“Canada is in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic and it’s killing thousands of people every year. The Northwest Territories are not immune to this and we’ve lost many of our community members,” said Dr. Jennifer Harris, a Yellowknife physician leading the treatment program.

The territory’s opioid maintenance therapy program has been in operation for five years and sees around 30 patients annually. At any given time there are around 10 to 15 patients using the services who are addicted to opiods, including heroin, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl.  

“Addiction is a chronic illness. It really impacts every aspect of someone’s life and requires a multifaceted team approach to address their often severe medical, psychological and social needs,” said Harris.

The funding will allow the territory’s health providers to meet complex demands. It will also bridge supports for people who receive treatment while incarcerated to maintain continuity of treatment once they are released, she said.

“We would like to make sure they have continuity between the corrections and when they are in their community. We have had many successes within the Opioid Maintenance Program and have watched people rebuild their lives with this type of support,” she said.

The funding will increase access to opioid agonist therapy, a treatment that uses methadone or suboxone to tackle withdrawal and cravings for opioid drugs. 

MP Michael McLeod announced $500,000 in federal support. The GNWT will spend $260,000.

Between January 2016 and June 2018 more than 9,000 Canadians died from opioid-related deaths.

In 2016, five people died in the NWT, with one death in 2017 and and another in 2018, federal statistics show. Deaths are down, in part, thanks to the territory’s public education campaign, said Health Minister Glen Abernethy.

The federal government allocates portions of the $150-million Emergency Treatment Fund to support provinces and territories based on population and the severity of the crisis in that jurisdiction.

“Opioid-related overdoses continue to have a devastating impact in communities across Canada,” said McLeod.

“The agreement signed today with the Northwest Territories will provide resources to address substance use disorder in communities outside the major urban centre and will improve access to the resources available in Yellowknife today,” he said.

The new funding will go toward new hires, training to improve knowledge of opioid use disorder for practitioners and identify resource gaps in treatment in communities outside Yellowknife.

GNWT takes up naloxone education

Residents can access naloxone kits free of charge. Injectable Naloxone is available without a prescription and distributed by pharmacists. Communities without pharmacies can access naloxone through their health centre or clinic. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

Education campaigns are primarily targeting youth who are the “highest risk” group for use of illicit drugs and overdose, said Harris.  

Young adults aged 20 to 29 represent 60 per cent of all overdoses. Men make up a majority of opioid deaths — around 80 percent of deaths. Women are 1.7 times as likely to be hospitalized than men.

The GNWT is advising people to access Naloxone kits, which are available free of charge. When administered, Naloxone can temporarily reverse an opioid overdose.

The territorial government is looking to usher in a spray version of Naloxone but has not yet set a date for implementing the new option, said health department spokesperson Damien Healy.

Unprescribed drugs ‘Russian Roulette,’ says opioid program lead

When illicit fentanyl came to the NWT, it came masked as OxyContin, said Harris.

“Basically you’re playing Russian Roulette if you are taking any type of pill that wasn’t prescribed to you. You just never know what you’re going to get,” she said.

The southern NWT and Yellowknife are hotspots for illegal fentanyl, said Harris.

More remote and Northern communities have less access to heroin and illicit fentanyl, but there is “always a possibility of overdose,” said Harris.

People can access the treatment program through telehealth or through regional practitioners, who will be sent to Yellowknife to train to administer suboxone and methadone treatment in their community, she said. 

Dr. Jennifer Harris (right) is leading the territory’s opioid treatment programming and wants to see continuity of care for incarcerated clients and remote communities. Avery Zingel/NNSL photo

The program coordinates with local physicians and nurses in smaller communities and regional centres with personal training to ensure they are comfortable in providing the regimen safely.

The program will make assessments of which communities are in need of the programming and whether misuse of prescription or illicit opioids are a problem, said Abernethy.

“We know that the NWT substance abuse rates are higher than other jurisdictions. We know that substance abuse is often one part of multiple challenges that our residents are facing, including past trauma. The federal funding today is helping us on that path,” he said.

The health department will continue to monitor opioid use in the territory but will likely be asking for additional funding in the future, he said.

As he has said repeatedly in the past, the health minister ruled out an addictions treatment centre in the territory for the near future.

“I would never say that we will never have a bricks-and-mortar treatment centre in the Northwest Territories but at this point, in order to meet the needs of our residents and provide them the options that they want and the alternatives that they want, funding a bricks and mortar facility doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of our residents,” he said.

Abernethy told reporters that the former Nats’ejee K’eh Treatment Centre in Hay River could not provide the flexible programming available to patients down south, including expedited referrals and getting into facilities within 36 to 48 hours.

“Bottom line is today we have way more options than we have ever had for people who a struggling. We still struggle in certain areas. We need to do better with aftercare and our action plan coming out during this session focuses on some of those things,” said Abernethy.

“There is no direction to build a bricks and mortar treatment centre, spend that money. We’d rather invest in the people and programming,” said Abernethy.

Avery Zingel

Avery Zingel is a reporter and photographer in Yellowknife, regularly covering environment, health and territorial politics. Avery is a graduate of the Carleton University School of Journalism and Political...

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