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In Brantford’s opioid nightmare, a community sees more hopeful days ahead

A year of surging opioid deaths spurred this Ontario town to action. Now, signs of progress are appearing, though officials warn the crisis may be far from over

The Globe and Mail

The area around the Grand River that runs through downtown Brantford, Ont. An increasingly deadly overdose problem galvanized city leaders to act, and for now it looks as if overdose figures fell sharply last year compared with their peak in 2017.

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Canada’s opioids epidemic rolled over this historic Southwestern Ontario city like the wave from a burst dam.

The first ripples were felt a couple years ago. On a summer weekend in 2016, Brantford recorded four drug overdoses, one of them fatal. That fall, two women collapsed from overdose while pushing a stroller down the street. Kids who attend a local youth centre began seeing their mothers, fathers or other adults overdose right in front of them at home. More discarded hypodermic needles started showing up on city streets and in public parks. Child-protection officials even found a needle in a toy box.

Twenty-five people died of overdoses in Brantford and surrounding Brant County in 2017, more than triple the number (eight) for 2016. Brantford had the highest rate of emergency department visits for overdose – 144 for every 100,000 people – of any city in Ontario. It had the second highest rate of hospital admissions for overdose of any city in Canada. Only Kelowna, B.C., exceeded it. The hometown of hockey legend Wayne Gretzky was earning another distinction: as a national leader in OD rates.

City leaders knew they had to act. Police Chief Geoff Nelson led the response. A respected, 30-year veteran of the force, he huddled with other local officials and put together a plan. Start treating users as sick people rather than criminals; make it easier for them to get addiction treatment; spread the word about the dangers of fentanyl, the drug that kills most overdose victims; hand out lots of free naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses. To make sure it all happens, involve every city agency in the fight, from the hospital to the police force to charitable groups.

Brantford released the Community Drugs Strategy 15 months ago. Early results are promising. Although officials are quick to say the crisis is far from over, overdose figures were down sharply last year from their peak in 2017. Emergency services responded to 35 per cent fewer overdose incidents in 2018. The hospital emergency department got 44 per cent fewer overdose visits. The number of deaths is still shocking – 13 in the first nine months of 2018 – but at least the line on the chart turned down instead of up; Brant County had 20 deaths in the first nine months of 2017.

Brantford’s campaign may hold lessons for other communities beset by the opioids crisis, which is killing 11 people a day across the country. The overdose surge that first washed over big urban centres such as Vancouver has now spread to smaller cities and towns. Like many of them, Brantford was caught off guard. Some locals thought: “That is something that happens in larger cities. That doesn’t happen here,” says Christina Rajsic of the Brant County Health Unit. "Until we realized, wow, it’s everywhere.”

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