Distribution of take-home opioid antagonist kits during a synthetic opioid epidemic in British Columbia, Canada: a modelling study

Michael A Irvine, Jane A Buxton, Michael Otterstatter, Robert Balshaw, Reka Gustafson, Mark Tyndall, Perry Kendall, Thomas Kerr, Mark Gilbert, Daniel Coombs
Lancet. Public Health 2018, 3 (5): e218-e225

BACKGROUND: Illicit use of high-potency synthetic opioids has become a global issue over the past decade. This misuse is particularly pronounced in British Columbia, Canada, where a rapid increase in availability of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the local illicit drug supply during 2016 led to a substantial increase in overdoses and deaths. In response, distribution of take-home naloxone (THN) overdose prevention kits was scaled up (6·4-fold increase) throughout the province. The aim of this study was to estimate the impact of the THN programme in terms of the number of deaths averted over the study period.

METHODS: We estimated the impact of THN kits on the ongoing epidemic among people who use illicit opioids in British Columbia and explored counterfactual scenarios for the provincial response. A Markov chain model was constructed explicitly including opioid-related deaths, fentanyl-related deaths, ambulance-attended overdoses, and uses of THN kits. The model was calibrated in a Bayesian framework incorporating population data between Jan 1, 2012, and Oct 31, 2016.

FINDINGS: 22 499 ambulance-attended overdoses and 2121 illicit drug-related deaths (677 [32%] deaths related to fentanyl) were recorded in the study period, mostly since January, 2016. In the same period, 19 074 THN kits were distributed. We estimate that 298 deaths (95% credible interval [CrI] 91-474) were averted by the THN programme. Of these deaths, 226 (95% CrI 125-340) were averted in 2016, following a rapid scale-up in distribution of kits. We infer a rapid increase in fentanyl adulterant at the beginning of 2016, with an estimated 2·3 times (95% CrI 2·0-2·9) increase from 2015 to 2016. Counterfactual modelling indicated that an earlier scale-up of the programme would have averted an additional 118 deaths (95% CrI 64-207). Our model also indicated that the increase in deaths could parsimoniously be explained through a change in the fentanyl-related overdose rate alone.

INTERPRETATION: The THN programme substantially reduced the number of overdose deaths during a period of rapid increase in the number of illicit drug overdoses due to fentanyl in British Columbia. However, earlier adoption and distribution of the THN intervention might have had an even greater impact on overdose deaths. Our findings show the value of a fast and effective response at the start of a synthetic opioid epidemic. We also believe that multiple interventions are needed to achieve an optimal impact.

FUNDING: Canadian Institutes of Health Research Partnerships for Health Systems Improvement programme (grant 318068) and Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (grant 04611).

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