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Overdose Awareness Day paints sombre picture

Thunder Bay has the highest rate of opioid-related deaths in Ontario, with as many as 29 in 2017.
Cynthia Olsen
Drug strategy co-ordinator Cynthia Olsen on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 poses with 29 balloons tied to 29 pairs of shoes in memory of the 29 people who died in Thunder Bay in 2017 of opioid-related overdoses.

THUNDER BAY – Twenty-nine black balloons, tied to 29 pairs of shoes with purple ribbon, were a sombre reminder of just how bad things can be in Thunder Bay.

Each of the balloons represented a person who died of an opiate-related overdose in the city in 2017, giving Thunder Bay the dubious honour of the highest death rate in Ontario.

It’s a message that hits home for Cynthia Olsen, the city’s drug strategy co-ordinator, one that should shock the community.

“If you’re here, it looks sad,” Olsen said of the display, which included a wide range of shoe types to represent the wide range of people opioid abuse affects.

“It impacts our whole community. It impacts all of Canada.”

The hope is that International Overdose Awareness Day, held globally on Aug. 31, can help affect a change in attitude and behaviour, both of those using the drugs and those people surrounding them.

Olsen pointed to Thunder Bay’s naloxone program, a drug used to counter the overdose affects of opioids, particularly relevant with the arrival of the often deadly carfentanil in recent years.

“We started a naloxone program – we were the fourth in Ontario – in 2014. There were a lot of barriers to naloxone, to providing it. The very first time we did it you had to be identified as either somebody who currently used or had a history of using opioids. That was it, that was all how you could get naloxone,” Olsen said.

Through advocacy, things have changed.

Naloxone kits can be picked up at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, at most pharmacies and through other agencies like Elevate NWO, who conducts a street outreach program delivered to the city’s most vulnerable people.

“And we did start to see a decrease in overdose deaths in our community,” Olsen said.

Eric Shih is the director of education and community development at Elevate NWO and said a sober look needs to be taken at the services needed in communities like Thunder Bay, where an overdose clinic’s scheduled opening earlier this month was paused by the newly installed Conservative government.

But it’s got to be emotion- and prejudice-free, he said.

“The good thing is there are evidence-based solutions out there that we can use in our community that can help with this. It won’t solve everything, but there are definitely solutions that will help.”

Nearly 4,000 people in Canada died of opioid overdoses in 2017, including 1,263 in Ontario alone. Ninety-two per cent of those deaths were accidental.

For more information about naloxone, contact Superior Points at 625-5900 or visit a local pharmacy.

Leith Dunick

About the Author: Leith Dunick

A proud Nova Scotian who has called Thunder Bay home since 2002, Leith has been the editor of Thunder Bay Source for 19 years and has served a similar role with since 2009. Wants his Expos back. Twitter: @LeithDunick
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