Photo By: Michael Longmire from Unsplash

CONTENT WARNING: This article deals with drug use and abuse, addiction, overdose, and death.

It’s no secret that the opioid epidemic has been ravaging communities across the country, particularly in the last few years.

As per Fight the Crisis, over 14,000 Canadians have died of apparent opioid overdose since 2016. 94% of these overdoses were accidental. Indeed, opioid overdose is becoming increasingly common across the country.

The Niagara Region is no exception to this trend. Niagara EMS have responded to over 630 suspected opioid overdoses in just the first eight months of 2021 alone. This is up considerably from 2020 and 2019, which saw 625 and 499 EMS responses to suspected opioid overdoses over 12 months, respectively. Opioid-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths are also up from years previous, as per opioid usage statistics from the Niagara Region.

“It is no secret that Niagara has seen an increase in dangerous street drugs and opioid overdoses, and this has become even more serious through the pandemic,” said St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik.

More broadly, while most people are at the very least aware of the existence of opioids and the epidemic, general knowledge regarding the drug category itself is somewhat limited. In a medical context, opioids are most commonly prescribed to treat pain and are often administered as a skin adhesive patch or a liquid that is given intravenously. 

However, even in a controlled medical setting opioids can be highly addictive. This is due to the fact that on top of relieving severe pain, they also often produce a euphoric feeling or high. This, on top of the fact that regular use can quickly cause the development of an increased tolerance and physical dependency, puts any and all opioid users at great risk of overdosing.

“Anyone who has any access to opiates; someone who uses them recreationally, someone who’s using them for pain relief, anyone who has opiates in their house is at equal risk,” said Raj Ondhia, a pharmacist in the Niagara Region.

According to Fight the Crisis, an overdose is when a lethal amount of opioids are consumed. There is no set amount of any drug that will cause an overdose, as this varies from person to person. However, there are universal signs of an overdose, which may include: stopping breathing, unresponsiveness, changes in skin colour, and deep, heavy snoring or gurgled breathing.

If you were to see somebody suffering from an opioid overdose, what you need to do is administer an opioid antagonist to that person as quickly as possible and call emergency services. Naloxone is one of the most popular and widely available, particularly here in Ontario, where they are provided for free at most pharmacies.

“So our bodies have receptors for opiates, and the naloxone will bind to those receptors instead of the opiates because it has a much stronger capability of binding to the receptors and it will prevent them from rebinding too,” said Ondhia. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the longest half-life, meaning that it doesn’t stay in your system for a very long period of time, so often multiple doses will actually be needed to help to reverse the state. There are always two doses in every kit to help with that.”

Importantly, Ondhia notes that naloxone does not cause harm if taken by someone who is not overdosing. So if you even suspect someone may be experiencing an overdose, the right thing to do is to act immediately. 

Despite the general availability and effectiveness of naloxone, it’s impossible to ignore the great stigma associated with it and opioid use, abuse, and overdose more broadly. This is something that local St. Catharines man Steve Borisenko is looking to change. 

For me, I already knew that I needed to have a naloxone kit on hand all the time. I don’t use drugs, but I go out in public and I could very easily be in a park where somebody is overdosing and dying, and that someone is a son or daughter. Do I want to help save their life? Absolutely I do. So why wouldn’t I have this life saving medicine? I couldn’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t have it. I just don’t get it,” said Borisenko.

Borisenko’s 21-year-old son Jacob tragically passed away from an unintentional opioid overdose in June 2021. Since then, he has committed himself to increasing awareness of opioid use in young people and the need for folks to get naloxone kits in order to be positioned to save lives in the event of an overdose.

“I know we aren’t going to get kids to stop taking these drugs, but if we can have them do it responsibly so that they don’t die, then let’s do that,” said Borisenko. “Let’s make sure that they all have naloxone. This should be in your first aid kit in your house. You don’t have to be a user to use naloxone. You just have to care enough to want to save someone’s life if you can.”

Ondhia echoed Borisenko’s calls for all folks to have a naloxone kit and to be educated on how to use it properly.

Anyone who can identify the signs and symptoms of opiate poisoning is positioned to be a hero and save someone’s life,” said Ondhia. “It’s like your EpiPen, it’s like your fire extinguisher. You hope you never have to use it, but it’s there if you need it.”

Currently, Borisenko is working to develop an app called Jacob’s Wall. Named after his late son, the app will, among many other things, compile alerts issued by health services in the Niagara Region that indicate when and where bad batches of street drugs are being sold in order to provide a ‘line of defense’ for those looking to purchase illicit drugs for recreational use, particularly young people. 

I know kids in university do a lot of drugs, and with fentanyl flooding the market, if you take the wrong pill without naloxone on hand you will die. There’s no second chance. I know all too well,” said Borisenko.

The app will also feature simple instructions on how to administer naloxone and what the signs of an overdose are, as he wants them to be accessible to someone who may very well also be on drugs at the time. 

“If you are doing drugs you aren’t going to read a long paragraph on how to use naloxone. We want to offer clear and concise instructions in the app on how to use it and what to look for to notice an overdose,” said Borisenko.

Ultimately, Borisenko simply hopes the app will make a difference.

If I can change one kid’s mind or save one life with this app it will be worthwhile,” said Borisenko.

In response to Borisenko’s dedication to this cause and his personal commitment to action, the Mayor’s Office is convening a youth-focused opioid task force this month.

“While we are supporting people who are struggling and families who are grieving, we are also taking action by talking about substance abuse and putting a focus on youth and teenagers who have increasingly easy access to dangerous street drugs,” said Sendzik. 

The task force will include Niagara Health, Positive Living Niagara, Community Addictions Services of Niagara, Pathstone Mental Health, Niagara Region Public Health, Brock University, Niagara College, local school boards, and the Overdose Prevention and Education Network of Niagara, who will be continuing the work started by this September task force on an ongoing basis.

With efforts ramping up to increase awareness for opioid overdose, particularly in young people, as well as commitments from all levels of government for increased mental health and addictions-related healthcare funding, hopefully 2021 will mark a turning point for the better in the opioid epidemic. 

Anyone struggling with addiction and substance use can reach out to support agencies across Niagara by calling 211. Anyone looking to learn more about naloxone is encouraged to contact Positive Living Niagara. For those interested in supporting the Jacob’s Wall project, you can email Steve Borisenko directly by clicking here.