Preventing an avoidable health crisis
For years the government has faced warnings that illicit opioids could become a problem here, for years it has done very little to prepare
Mōrena and welcome to The Bulletin for Wednesday, February 16, by Justin Giovannetti. Presented in partnership with Z Energy.
In today’s edition: Police commissioner speaks on protest; government tells people to keep going to work; homeowners don’t want prices to fall; but first, preparing for an opioid crisis.
Opioid overdoses have killed tens of thousands worldwide. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)
Preparing to face a crisis that might never happen. Today let’s do something different and investigate an avoidable health emergency that hasn’t struck New Zealand and perhaps never will. It has hit many of our closest friends around the world and has caused enormous waves of human misery. There are theories for why it hasn’t really arrived in Aotearoa, none of them very comforting. The government could do much to prepare at relatively low cost, but has chosen not to. Let’s look at the opioid crisis.
Why New Zealand needs to prepare to face an opioid crisis like the one ripping through North America and Europe. A New Zealander is now dying from an opioid overdose nearly every week, according to the NZ Drug Foundation. While that figure isn’t anywhere near the crisis levels seen overseas, where fatalities are now in the thousands every month, each death is preventable. A toxic mixture of red tape and political caution has stopped New Zealand from adopting measures that could save lives, Sarah Helm, the foundation’s executive director, told The Bulletin.
“We have at least 46 people dying every year, unnecessarily, of opioid overdoses. They are entirely preventable and so we are very keen to see new measures put in place. New Zealand has done great in some areas, like drug checking. But we continue to lag behind in overdose prevention,” said Helm.
One of the main tools we could use is a medication called naloxone. Over the last decade, the synthetic opioid fentanyl has gone from a rarely detected drug in North America to being found in the vast majority of the continent’s overdose deaths. In many cases, people aren’t seeking out the opioid, but it has been added to other drugs. It’s cheap and extremely potent, often causing overdoses without warning. Naloxone has saved thousands of lives every week. It quickly reverses an overdose, giving someone time to get to hospital and lifesaving care.
“We are grossly underprepared for an opioid crisis. We don’t have the stocks of naloxone available or delivery mechanism. Should we end up with an adulterated supply of MDMA or methamphetamine, we would likely end up with a number of overdoses quickly and not have the ability to help those people,” Helm added. That’s the nightmare scenario, where fentanyl is added to the country’s drug supply as a cheap high that boosts profits for gangs.
New Zealand has access to two types of naloxone, both in very limited quantities. Injectable naloxone is funded, but requires someone to get a prescription to carry it. The prescription can be hard to get and means the medication often can’t be carried by first responders in New Zealand. Paramedics, fire fighters and police in some jurisdictions overseas now carry it as part of their normal kit. Some ambulances, but not all in New Zealand, have naloxone. An easier-to-use nasal spray version is freely available for anyone in this country, but it’s not funded. It costs about $90 per dose. Some drug users have been provided with access to the spray version in Nelson and Palmerston North, but on a very limited basis.
It’s a maddening state of things for people who need the medication: It’s either available and unfunded, or funded and unavailable.
Why the opioid crisis isn’t here. For those New Zealanders dying of overdoses it is. The New Zealand Medical Journal has looked at the situation and come to two conclusions for why we aren’t seeing more. The first is that the border is our main defence, but it’s leaky and shouldn’t be our only defence. The second is much more concerning: We might not even know if we were in an opioid crisis. The country’s data is years old, the fatality figures in this story are still provisional and come from 2018. There’s also no rapid reporting system to give any one person a clear picture of what’s happening across the country’s emergency departments and pathology labs. As the Journal concludes, “we may not know we have a trend until it is well underway.”
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Police to begin towing protest vehicles in Wellington. The police commissioner spoke publicly for the first time about the protest at parliament and as Stuff reports, said towing should have started days ago. The commissioner, Andrew Coster, said that towing companies were reluctant to help after facing threats and the military hasn’t yet responded to a request to help. We’re eight days into the protest. A towing operation could take days and Coster said anyone trying to stop things will be arrested. Police began handing out tickets to illegally parked cars yesterday.
Canada’s prime minister invokes unprecedented emergency powers to end protest that inspired Wellington occupation. The situation in the Canadian capital can’t easily be summarised in a paragraph. But yesterday’s news means that one of the most significant barriers to dealing with the problem, which is Canada’s oftentimes maddening, sometimes brilliant federal system, has now been brushed aside. The national government has used the most powerful tool at its disposal, never before used in its current form, to tackle the protest. After nearly a month of trying to deal with the occupation of a G7 capital through local noise bylaws and parking infringements, prime minister Justin Trudeau has mobilised the power of the Canadian state to react. It’s unclear what he’s going to do with it. As Reuters reports, one of the first moves was to impose terror-financing laws on crowdfunding sites backing the protests, freeze bank accounts and suspend vehicle insurance. It’s illegal to drive in Canada without insurance.
‘Go to work’: government tells the nation. Welcome to the first day of phase two of the omicron plan. Amid growing evidence that many New Zealanders are choosing to stay home as omicron cases soar, the finance minister wants people to head into work and buy a flat white on the way. The red traffic light isn’t a lockdown and as Newsroom reports, the Beehive wants people to act like normal. Part of it stems from a reluctance from government to keep propping up struggling sectors of the economy. Businesses across the country told RNZ that they are facing a “disaster” as employees are forced to self-isolate and downtown sidewalks empty out.
The Spinoff’s Covid data tracker has the latest figures.
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The housing market continues to confound. Grant Robertson is likely to face a grilling at parliament today, Thomas Coughlan writes in the NZ Herald, as house prices roses twice as fast as Treasury had expected over the past year. The finance minister has done little as his department’s forecasts, which form the basis of his work programme, have continuously missed the mark by a very wide margin. Meanwhile, real estate experts warned Stuff that there’s a big slump in the housing market after sales fell by a third in January. Prices were up sharply.
That poll that New Zealanders want house prices to fall: Yeah, nah. Two weeks ago One News ran a headline that three-quarters of us want house prices to drop. It was featured in The Bulletin. According to the poll, almost 47% wanted a big fall in prices. It seemed to show a collective openness to sharing pain to correct a mad market. However, the question only asked people about the housing market in a general sense. Henry Cooke from Stuff got his hands on a different poll that asked a much more specific question: Do you want your house price to fall? Only 7% said they want a big drop. A whopping 62% don’t want their own house price to drop a single cent.
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