News Local

Study looks to help reduce overdoses

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

Insite is the safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

Insite is the safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. FILE PHOTO, 24 HOURS

A new study out of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS suggests it’s actually safer to inject prescription opioid drugs often obtained illegally by users than the more commonly used heroin.

With prescription drugs, said Dr. Thomas Kerr, it’s much easier for users to inject consistent amounts — as the original product was labelled and likely comes from a pharmacy — and this helps lower the risk of overdose.

The study has interesting implications as fentanyl — a prescription opioid — has been listed as a cause of numerous overdoses in the past several years. The drug, many times more powerful than morphine, can be mixed into batches of illicit heroin and made into new varieties of oxycodone pills that police and health officials have warned about.

While it’s not unheard of that some users might prefer injecting fentanyl, this wasn’t as much the case here in Vancouver, where 1,660 injection drug users were examined by study authors from 2005 to 2014.

“When people are injecting prescription opioids, they’re talking more about things like morphine and Dilaudid,” Kerr said.

“Fentanyl is a very powerful opioid but it has applications and can be safely used in a prescribed manner. But now we not only have more illicit fentanyl in things like the patch, and we have illicit fentanyl that we haven’t seen before.”

The study found that those who injected only prescription medication were least likely to overdose, followed by those who use heroin. The people most likely to overdose were those who abused both prescription opioids and illicit heroin.

“For some people injecting heroin, prescription opioids may actually be protective, which again I think really leads us to question how do we best deliver care and support for opioid addicts in a way that minimizes harm?” Kerr said.