Time to Move on Preventing Overdose Deaths

published on November 10, 2016 by Melissa Edwards in St Pauls Foundation

Imagine the equivalent of three passenger planes filled with young people crashing to the earth every year – that’s the picture Dr. Keith Ahamad uses to describe the public health emergency announced this year in response to overdose deaths in British Columbia.

“There’s no escaping it,” he says. “Addiction hits every single patient group and every socioeconomic group. We’re seeing two to three deaths a day from this preventable disease. If you were to compare that with any other health care emergency, the public would mobilize very quickly.”

In 2015 there were more overdose deaths than in any of the previous 20 years, and in 2016 that number has spiked even higher. More than 61 people have died from overdose every month between January and June. Fentanyl, a potent opioid, is involved in over 60 per cent of cases.

Despite the high mortality rate, little is known about what happens to the cardiopulmonary system during an overdose and who might be at increased risk. This desperate lack of knowledge is why Dr. Ahamad and his team at St. Paul’s have launched a new study, called Mobile Opioid Vital-Sign Evaluation (MOVE), that may open the door to better understanding why overdoses happen, and, potentially, how they could be prevented.

The risks of long-term opioid use are only just beginning to be revealed.

In a recent study in the US, patients with non-cancer chronic pain who had been prescribed opioids were shown to not just be at greater risk of unintentional overdose, but also at greater risk of death from all causes – particularly from cardiac events. The goal of MOVE is to create and test a new way of using vital- sign monitoring equipment, setting the groundwork to gather first-of-its-kind data on the cardiopulmonary effects of opioids, both in hospital settings and among those who use injection drugs.

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