Public forum to discuss opioid crisis

Front-line experts will explore root causes of the crisis and discuss solutions.

Geoff McMaster - 03 April 2019

Deaths from opioid poisoning hit a record 759 in Alberta last year, a number that School of Public Health assistant professor and substance use expert Elaine Hyshka calls unacceptable.

"We have made some progress in terms of expanding access to harm reduction services and treatment services," said Hyshka. "But for the most part, we haven't seen the scale of response we would expect to a public health crisis … we still haven't seen the kind of progress we'd hoped to see."

To help shed light on what has become "a really complex topic," Hyshka and a panel of experts will lead a public discussion on campus April 8 called The Opioid Crisis: Perspectives on Health and Harm.

Hosted by the U of A's senate and chancellor, in partnership with the School of Public Health, the Chancellor's Forum will allow the public to hear from front-line experts discussing how to address the human and social conditions at the root of the crisis.

"Each year we look for an issue that is relevant at the time, and the opioid issue is a critical issue facing our society," said chancellor Doug Stollery.

"My hope is the public understanding of opioid crisis will improve, and that this group will help to generate some ideas about what the solutions might be."

At the inaugural forum last year, a panel discussed the impact of the Vriend vs. Alberta case in its 20th-anniversary year.

In addition to Hyshka, this year's forum will include Kathryn Dong of Royal Alexandra Hospital's Inner City Health and Wellness Program and Addiction Recovery Community Health Team; Shanell Twan, a peer outreach worker with Streetworks Edmonton; Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition; and Mike Serr, Abbotsford's chief of police.

On average, two people in Alberta and 11 in Canada die every day as a result of opioid poisoning, according to provincial and national statistics. In the final quarter of 2018, 159 people died from fentanyl-related poisoning, compared with 180 people in the previous quarter.

Hyshka stressed there are no simple solutions to what has become primarily a public health problem, and underscored the need for innovation and urgent action.

"In public health, we often see a huge mobilization of resources in response to things like SARS or romaine lettuce being contaminated, and I feel like we haven't seen that same scale of response to this," she said, adding that the opioid epidemic dwarfs those other problems.

"It comes down to a lack of political and public will, because people who use substances are a highly stigmatized and misunderstood population."

Hyshka's own research looks at the implementation of supervised consumption services, or safe injection sites, in Alberta and across the country. In the last quarter of 2018, there were 86,572 visits to such sites in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge.

"Until we get people who use opioids out of that illegal market and provide access to safer alternatives, such as pharmaceutical-grade drugs and treatment, we're not going to see a decrease in the death rate," she said.

And though it's important to hold pharmaceutical manufacturers of the opioids accountable for their early role in the epidemic, she said, it is street-level variants that now pose the most acute danger.

"Illegal drugs on the street have never been more toxic. If we are too preoccupied with solutions that revolve around prescription drugs, we're missing the bigger picture here."

Free and open to the public, the Chancellor's Forum takes place Monday, April 8, at 6:30 p.m. in the Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex. The event will also be live streamed.