Health Canada takes big step towards making overdose antidote available without prescription

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      Today (January 14) Health Canada announced it wants to make a so-called antidote for drug overdoses available without a prescription.

      Naloxone, which is also known by its trade name, Narcan, is a drug used to counter the effects of opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. It is available in Canada but can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription.

      Health Canada has been studying whether to make naloxone available without a prescription and today issued a statement saying it now favours that option. The change in status will now be subject to a public-consultation phase that will run until March 19.

      Health Canada’s review of naloxone is unusual in that it was not requested by a pharmaceutical manufacturer but rather was an initiative by the regulator itself.

      It came in response to a synthetic opioid called fentanyl turning up in more drug overdoses in B.C. and across Canada.

      According to the provincial coroners service, during the first eight months of 2015, fentanyl was detected in 91 overdose deaths in B.C., or more than a third of the total. That’s up from 90 during the whole of 2014, 49 in 2013, and 13 in 2012.

      To date, naloxone has been used to reverse 326 potentially fatal overdoses in B.C., according to a provincial harm-reduction program called Toward the Heart. The actual number is likely much higher, as it is believed the drug's administration is vastly underreported.

      A number of B.C. organizations have said they would applaud any Health Canada decision that makes naloxone more easily available. Those include the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the Vancouver Police Department.

      However, both agencies have also said they would like to see Ottawa go even further and make available in a different form of naloxone that is presently not approved for use in Canada.

      The type of naloxone subject to the public consultation initiated today is in a liquid form that is delivered via intramuscular injection. On January 6, the Straight reported that frontline health-care workers in the Downtown Eastside have suggested that Health Canada review a form of naloxone that’s administered via an intranasal spray.

      Interviewed for that article, Health Canada spokesperson Rebecca Gilman said an intranasal form of naloxone would be considered a “major change in formulation” from the injectable type that is approved. She said it would therefore be required to go through a full Health Canada review, a process that, to date, has not been initiated.

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