New test helps detect dangerous substance in street drugs in Oakville, Milton, Halton Hills

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Published August 23, 2023 at 2:53 pm

Halton Healthcare, which is comprised of Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital, Milton District Hospital and Georgetown Hospital, is one of the first community hospital organizations to provide patients at risk of opioid use with free xylazine tests.

Health Canada recently approved xylazine test strips that can quickly detect the presence of xylazine in opioids such as fentanyl.

Commonly known as ‘tranq’ or ‘horse tranquilizer’ xylazine is a veterinary medication and is not approved for human use. It can cause very serious harm in people, such as severe skin ulcers, respiratory and central nervous system depression or death, especially when combined with opioids.

According to federal statistics, in 2022, there were 7,328 opioid toxicity deaths in Canada, an average of 20 per day. Almost 87 percent of these deaths occurred in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. Compounding this crisis is the recent appearance of xylazine mixed with street drugs such as fentanyl.

Earlier this year, hospital staff and physicians at Halton Healthcare began seeing a number of patients with opioid related conditions presenting with severe symptoms.

“We saw individuals with large ulcers, people who remained sedated after having one or two rounds of naloxone or having seizures as part of the withdrawal from opioids,” said Dr. Jeremy Butler, Medical Director, Emergency Mental Health & Addictions.

At first, the staff could not pinpoint the cause because nothing appeared on routine drug screening. Then, in March 2023, Halton Region Public Health sent a bulletin to health providers warning of street drugs, especially fentanyl, being contaminated with xylazine.

Under the leadership of Butler, Halton Healthcare staff immediately began working to acquire a supply of xylazine test strips and this summer started providing the test strips to patients inside free Naloxone kits. Naloxone is a fast-acting drug used to temporarily reverse the effects of opioids.

“I’m excited about any opportunity to engage individuals with this challenging condition,” said Butler. “We have exceptional treatments for opioid use disorder. If our team can advocate for and provide tools to reduce the dangers of their use, reduce bad health outcomes and invite connection to care, we are proud to do so.”

The response so far from patients has been very positive with many asking for more test strips for their own use or to give to others.

“These test strips are another way to help keep our patients safe,” said Lisa-Marie Burka-Daniels, Patient Care manager in Halton Healthcare’s Addiction Program. “It’s a non-judgmental way for staff and physicians to educate patients about the dangers of fentanyl and prevent further harm.”

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