OP-ED Alberta can learn important lessons from British Columbia’s opioid response

Alberta can learn important lessons from British Columbia’s opioid response.
Opinion/Editorial by Dr. David Swann, MLA Calgary-Mountain View, Alberta Liberal Leader

By any objective measure, the opiate crisis has affected British Columbia far more severely than Alberta. Both legal and illegal opiate use is more prevalent, and it was the first province to see this unprecedented number of deaths due to overdoses of fentanyl and other opiates.

B.C.’s response has been robust. The declaration of a public health state of emergency led to resources being mobilized across government departments and between all stakeholders in a co-ordinated plan. Their Provincial Health Officer reports monthly on the efforts to combat the crisis, and the province has embraced early harm reduction measures such as naloxone kits and supervised injection sites. Despite these efforts, and an investment of $100 million to combat the crisis, the death toll still continues to grow at a rate of nearly four people per day.

Alberta’s situation has not yet reached the same extremes, but we have yet to see a comprehensive strategy that involves all the major stakeholders, including physicians, government departments and non-government organizations. Alberta Health attempts to report deaths and drug overdoses every three months; yet, the final total of opioid-related deaths in 2016 is still unknown. Nonetheless, mortality rates from fentanyl and other opiates still continue to rise in Alberta, approaching two per day.

Naloxone kits are undoubtedly saving lives, but we are not tracking how many, which is an important metric for gauging our progress. Wait times for replacement therapy outside Edmonton and Calgary continue to be too long. There is a troubling lack of information that could help us get an accurate picture of the extent of the problem and the effectiveness of our solutions. The recently announced $6 million from the federal government is a welcome boost, but the province needs to be able to direct those funds in the right areas to make sure they are used effectively.

Similar to B.C., this crisis requires strong, focused leadership. This includes a mental health and addictions experts who can develop and implement a coherent and coordinated plan that makes proper use all of the tools at the government’s disposal and overcomes the silos that have inhibited Alberta’s response. I have proposed to reinstate the chief addiction and mental health officer to spearhead Alberta’s opioid response. So far, the government has refused, and also says declaring a state of emergency is unnecessary.

There is still much to do to address this terrible, preventable tragedy, but doing less than our neighbours to the west is not the answer. If we hope to get ahead of this crisis, Alberta needs to learn from British Columbia’s opioid response, and build upon it, and get ahead of this crisis. The lives of our parents, children, brothers and sisters depend on us getting this right.