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Task force hopes to offer help for opioid addiction to communities
Withdrawal services currently only available in capital

Shane Magee
Northern News Services
Thursday, February 16, 2017

A task force launched by the GNWT last fall to address an opioid crisis is considering expanding access to withdrawal services in communities outside Yellowknife, the territory's top doctor says.

Withdrawal services, known as opioid maintenance therapy, transitions someone addicted to an illicit drug like fentanyl to a prescribed, regular dose of methadone or suboxone.

Suboxone and methadone are used so a person can stop using a potentially deadly drug without experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

"This has been shown to be far superior to abstinence - going cold turkey," said Dr. Jennifer Harris, a physician involved with the withdrawal program, during a presentation last month at the Yellowknife Public Library.

However, the service is currently limited to Yellowknife.

NWT Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Andre Corriveau said the group will look at ways of expanding the service to other communities to reach more people.

"It's not going to be instant, but that's the goal," Corriveau said in an interview Jan. 31.

Last year, Harris said the number of patients she treats through opioid management roughly doubled because of fentanyl.

Ways to increase access to withdrawal services is one question being considered by the task force, created by Health Minister Glen Abernethy, and led by Corriveau.

The task force met in December and January and is expected to continue for about a year. Its first objective was to increase access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. That was completed in late December when naloxone became available for free at retail pharmacies or health centres in communities without a pharmacy.

Over the past few weeks, Corriveau said they've worked to make sure primary-care staff are able to train people who request kits how to use them.

A second aspect of task force's work is developing a public awareness campaign targeted at both casual and regular drug users. Corriveau hopes this will launch by the end of the month. He said the government has been holding focus-group testing on draft messaging to ensure it resonates with target audiences.

At a public meeting last month at the Yellowknife Public Library, RCMP Sgt. Dean Riou - who is part of the task force - said he's given lectures about opioids to teachers of both city high schools and that the plan is to travel to Fort Smith and Hay River to hold similar talks.

Corriveau said RCMP help the task force by cutting the supply of illicit drugs.

"They play a role in terms of stemming the flow," he said.

A third part of the group's work is to address treatment as well as prescription of narcotics and opioids.

While Corriveau said there are legitimate uses for the drugs, they need to be used in a way that won't lead to more addiction. He said one aspect under consideration is an orientation for new physicians in the territory about prescribing opioids.

Corriveau emphasized the group's work will not immediately stem issues caused by opioids.

"This is not a short-term solution - there's no quick fix to this. B.C. has been in this longer than us, and they're still having difficulties with this," Corriveau said.

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