The pandemic, along with economic and military crises, have dominated the news in recent years. One disastrous element of our society seems to be neglected, and that is awareness of the opioid crisis. Not only in this country, but right in our own backyard.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Matthew Schurter, a physician with the Medical Associates of Port Perry, as well as a leader in the fight against opioid addiction. I must confess, I have been rather sheltered when it came to awareness of this massive issue, and was glad for the opportunity to chat with Dr. Schurter and learn more.
Dr. Schurter has always had an interest in infectious disease and opened a travel health clinic to assist travellers with their medical requirements. In this day and age, when travelling is becoming more of a challenge, having all of your vaccines in order, is becoming a necessity. There are always new vaccines being developed, but new diseases continue to surface all the time.
One of the questions I had was, to learn who falls victim to opioid addiction. I was surprised to find out it can be anyone, anytime; professionals, young people, etc. usually as a result of medication prescribed for pain.
Dr. Schurter explained there are many other routes to opioid addiction, such as experimentation, escapism, mental health issues. Unlike other addictions, opioid users develop rapid tolerance, requiring an increase in the amount of drugs they take.
The word opioid originates from opium, but in today’s world, any drug dependency, such as morphine, fentanyl, etc. is considered an opioid issue. Fentanyl or carfentanyl (a potent street version), is the buzzword of late. The drug is a necessity in many surgeries as part of the anaesthesia process, and the medical community could not do without it. Medically, the effectiveness in relief of acute pain, due to its extremely fast acting quality, helps many patients.
Using fentanyl in a medically supervised situation, with properly trained staff, resuscitation equipment and specific use, is much different from using the drug in a non-medical environment.
Fortunately, many people who take prescription opioids do not become addicted to them. A number of years ago, the buzzword was Oxycodone. Due to the lack of information, it was prescribed much more frequently than it is today. Many people would abruptly stop using the drug, but their body craved more. This of course, led to obtaining the drugs illegally.
Dr. Schurter explained how being dependent on opioids, or any addiction for that matter, becomes all consuming. The need to satisfy the craving takes over all other necessities, and becomes the dominant drive in a person. Once the need has been satisfied, the effect is not long lasting. The avoidance of withdrawal becomes the only priority, which of course leads to enhancing the addiction.
The problem is extremely severe. In Canada, since the pandemic, fatalities as a result of opioid overdose has doubled, and now we are averaging one death every hour.
Unfortunately, many people, although aware of the crisis, feel it is outside their sphere of existence. Sadly, the numbers show that is not the case. Many young people, who have no history of addiction, experiment a little. Due of the potency of these drugs, it is difficult to walk away from them, once you experience their effect.
Not everyone has contacts in the underground world of drug dealers, or has a way of buying street drugs easily, so I wondered how else people become addicted. Dr. Schurter explained how neglect with legitimately obtained drugs, is a major contributor to the issue. People not returning unused drugs to pharmacies or leaving them lying around the house, can and has led to many overdoses. Age is not a factor; patients as young as one year of age have been affected.
Dr. Schurter explained there are four elements essential in combating this problem: prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction. As I mentioned, many sufferers begin their dependency from prescriptions that are overused, carelessly discarded or meant for others. From there, once the supply dries up, it is only natural for people to turn to the streets to fill their need.
Part of the treatment is opioid reduction, where a patient is given a prescription for an opioid that is less potent and consequently less harmful. This will decrease the cravings, allowing other forms of treatment, such as counselling, to take place.
There are many reasons why people become addicted to opioids, and clearly, awareness of the issues may prevent usage. More importantly, is knowledge of the resources to help people who have fallen victim to this terrible addiction.
Dr. Schurter has spent a great deal of time dealing with people who are suffering from opioid addiction. You can learn more about the issues by visiting durham.ca/en/health-and-wellness/durham-opioid-response-plan.aspx and letstalkaboutopioids.ca.
We need to talk more, learn a great deal more and do something. Perhaps then we can begin to minimize this major crisis in our communities.
To find out more about the opioid crisis watch my interview with Dr. Schurter on the Jonathan van Bilsen show on RogersTV and YouTube.
Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.