Pubdate: Tue, 07 Mar 2017
Source: Calgary Herald (CN AB)
Copyright: 2017 Postmedia Network
Author: Don Braid
Page: A4


Some columns are hard to write because it's almost impossible to stop
watching the events that propel them.

That's the way it was with Monday's emergency legislature debate on
opioid addiction and deaths.

It was fascinating, emotional, moving and very informative. It might
have surprised many Albertans who think politicians have no clue about
real life.

MLAs on all sides - Wildrose, PC, Alberta Party, Liberal and NDP -
have seen the carnage close up.

Progressive Conservative MLA Rick Fraser, a former EMS worker,
recalled arriving at a residence to find a 14-year-old boy who'd
seemed perfectly normal when he arrived home, only to die shortly
afterward in the basement.

Mike Ellis, another PC and former CPS officer, described his own
up-close experiences. So did Dr. Bob Turner, a cancer physician and
NDP member for Edmonton-Whitemud, who talked about how he's seen the
problem both in the hospitals and his affluent community.

Erin Babcock, the New Democrat from Stony Plain, said that since she
was 11 years old her family has dealt with the trials and torments of
an addicted family member.

The opposition wants the NDP to declare a public health emergency. It
probably won't happen, even though everybody in that legislature
seemed to agree that opioid scourge has become exactly that.

The New Democrats' flat rejection may begin with pride. They refused
to declare an emergency before and aren't about to start now.

Their other reason is that the Public Health Act, written to cover
disease pandemics, doesn't fit well with drugs. And it's undeniable
that the government has worked hard on specific solutions, including
provision of naloxone antidote, safe consumption sites, and much else.

But as the crisis escalates, the NDP line looks more and more like
hair-splitting. Maybe they finally know it: An official in the
premier's office said the position could be reviewed.

An emergency decree would force agencies and services to co-ordinate
closely. They would have to supply real-time data that would give a
much clearer picture of local needs. Officials would have certain
powers like those usually available only during a disease pandemic.

Most of all, though, an emergency decree would give the opioid
disaster a massive boost in public perception. It would lift opioid
deaths from the level of serious problem to genuine crisis.

It has surely reached that stage, when even first responders are
sometimes hospitalized because of skin contact with these hugely toxic

As several MLAs pointed out, this is a kind of pandemic. It's also
more lethal than influenza has been for many decades.

This is becoming the biggest western health crisis since the height of
HIV in the 1990s, and the H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009.

In Alberta, 343 people died from opioid use in 2016.

By contrast, 369 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2014. The
H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009, which caused near-panic for weeks, killed
69 people.

Really, how are opioids not a crisis?

We've got nearly one person a day dying in Alberta alone.

In this context, it's alarming that doctors have tripled the number of
written prescriptions for opioids over the past few years.

Dr. Richard Starke, PC MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster, called for
better monitoring because many of those who died had seen two or more
doctors for prescriptions. A veterinarian, Starke said he was always
extremely careful about recording drug prescriptions even for animals.

B.C. declared opioid deaths a formal public health emergency nearly
one year ago. In 2010, opioids caused five per cent of the province's
overdose deaths. When the emergency was declared, this poison was
causing 60 per cent of deaths.

The public's idea of an emergency can be very flexible. Imagine what
would happen if terrorists were killing one Canadian a day. Troops
would be on the move, schools locked down. It would be a rolling
national panic.

People are more dismissive when the problem is a substance people
choose to ingest, rather than random violence or an airborne virus
that can infect anyone.

But still - how many people have to die before we see an emergency
staring Alberta in the face?
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MAP posted-by: Matt