Three harm reduction organizations are working with more than 70 pharmacies across Nova Scotia to meet the rising demand for safe supplies for people who use substances.
Those on the front lines of this work say the coronavirus pandemic has led to a steep increase in the need for safe supplies to be distributed to communities provincewide.
One way that’s done is through the “brown bag program.”
“(The bags) each include 10 clean syringes, 10 alcohol swabs, a tie, some water and a few cookers,” said Ashton Manktelow, an outreach worker with Mainline Needle Exchange.
Manktelow is one of several outreach workers at Mainline who not only partner with health professionals to help educate them on harm reduction services that help keep the community safe, but also travel the province meeting substance users and connecting them with support.
“We’re all over the province and our goal is to make sure people have safe using supplies. Whether they can’t get to us, they can get to their nearest pharmacy. Anybody who uses substances should at least use clean using supplies,” he said.
The pandemic has cast a grim light on an ongoing crisis that Canada has faced for many years — the overdose epidemic.
While some cities have experienced a significantly higher number of overdose deaths than others, the need for harm reduction services and calls from advocates for a safe drug supply continue to rise across the country.
In Halifax, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths has averaged just over 60 a year for the past several years.
However, a Halifax Regional Municipality report presented to regional council in November 2019 warns that the number is likely to rise.
“There is risk of increased deaths and overdoses if the substance supply shifts, especially if a newly contaminated substance supply includes fentanyl or its analogues,” the report says. “According to recent research by NS Department of Health and Wellness, the likelihood of this happening is high.”
Pharmacist Martha MacPherson in Kentville, N.S., says offering harm reduction services, like a brown bag filled with clean supplies, to community members in need is a logical and compassionate way to offer health services that reduce the risk of overdose and the spread of dangerous infections.
“In our opinion, it’s a medical condition,” MacPherson said. “Addiction is a medical condition. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s something we can work through. If you need it, you come in and get it.”
In 2017, the provincial government invested in the distribution of free naloxone kits to pharmacies across Nova Scotia. While naloxone is a critical tool in reducing opioid overdose deaths, the brown bags are also an important step in reducing the overall harm that can come with sharing used supplies.
“Using new supplies every time and not sharing with others also reduces the chances for some heart infections, as well as skin infections,” said Sara Wuite, a health protection officer with NS Health.
In the first six months of 2020, Mainline distributed over 800,000 needles across the province. Typically, it distributes one million needles a year.
Manktelow says those numbers are evidence of the rising need to improve access to harm reduction services in Nova Scotia, especially during a global pandemic, where overdose risks continue to increase.
“This is an actual disease and we are in the middle of a crisis,” he said.
The list of pharmacies where brown bags are available outside of the Halifax Regional Municipality includes:
Bridgewater Drugstore Pharmacy – Davison Drive
Bridgewater Pharmasave – 215 Dominion St
Kinburn Pharmasave – 522 Main St., Mahone Bay
Reynold’s – Liverpool
Lawton’s – Shelburne
Harboursouth Pharmasave – 235 Main St., Yarmouth
Spears and Macleod Pharmacy – 333 Main St., Yarmouth
City Drugstore Phamachoice – 369 Main St., Yarmouth
Valley Drug Mart – 26 Commercial St., Middleton
Valley Drug Mart Pharmasave – 547-613 Main St., Kingston
Wilsons Pharmasave – 213 Commercial St., Berwick
Wilsons Pharmasave – 100 Station Lane, Kentville
Maders Phamachoice – Coldbrook
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