Interior Health is considering a pilot project that would put Narcan — a safe drug used to counteract heroin overdose — into the hands of addicts.
Public health officials believe the measure may help bring down the number of people in the Southern Interior who end up in hospital due to a heroin overdose.
The University of Victoria's Centre for Addictions Research released a report this week on overdose events within the B.C. Interior Health Authority, which includes areas ranging from Kamloops to the Okanagan and Kootenays. The region has the highest per-capita rates for hospitalizations due to drug and alcohol overdose.
Dr. Trevor Corneil, a medical health officer with the IHA, said residents tend to think of injection drug use as a big-city problem. But statistics suggest the problem cuts across all of B.C.
Metro Vancouver still has the highest rates of death from illicit drug use.
"There are some misconceptions that Interior Health is very different from Vancouver-Coastal Health or Fraser (Health) in terms of who is at risk," said Corneil.
Where Vancouver-Coastal has moved aggressively to so-called harm-reduction strategies for addicts, the movement here has been much slower.
Corneil said IHA is looking at a pilot program with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to put Narcan into the hands of heroin addicts as well as people with prescriptions for opiates to fight pain. Either may have an accidental overdose.
The pilot is likely to be done in a city in the Kootenays. If successful and approved by the IHA, Corneil said Kamloops would be an obvious place for the program to be quickly implemented.
Heroin users would be given kits allowing them to inject fellow users with Narcan in the event of an overdose.
Narcan, known as naloxone in its generic form, works to counteract depression of the central nervous system and lungs in overdose situations.
ASK Wellness executive director Bob Hughes said Friday there is no chance for the drug to be abused. If injected, it quickly brings opiate users to a sober state of withdrawal by blocking receptor sites in the body.
Hughes said if a user is showing potential signs of overdose, a mention of Narcan will quickly determine how real is the danger.
"You tell them, 'I will jam you full of Narcan.' That person will bounce off the floor and say, 'Don't do that.' "
Corneil compared the availability of Narcan for addicts to people with food allergies, for example, who carry epi-pens.
While epinephrine carries "significant risk" in its use, Corneil called Narcan "an incredibly safe drug."
It is currently only available here in emergency departments or through paramedics. It is distributed to heroin users in a number of U.S. and European cities.
While pilot program details remain in the formation stage, another issue to be addressed is the need for an approval by the College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Corneil said the program will potentially include education so heroin users understand how to administer Narcan. They will also be taught to clear airways and call 911 in case of overdose.
Wider availability of Narcan is one of the recommendations contained in the centre for addictions research report. It also calls for supervised "drug consumption sites" and for police to treat overdoses as health emergencies rather than crime scenes.