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A volunteer prepares a naloxone kit in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, December 21, 2016.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s take-home naloxone program handed out nearly 17,000 kits last year as demand for the overdose-reversing medication soared in the province.

The program, which is run by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, distributed 16,597 kits to individual drug users and facilities such as shelters in 2016, including 3,165 that were refilled because they had been used to reverse an overdose, according to figures released on Monday. In 2015, 3,394 kits were dispensed and 428 were used.

The kits contain a needle with one dose of the antidote.

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Jane Buxton, who oversees harm-reduction for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said the province's overdose crisis has focused attention on naloxone and contributed to the program's success.

"Certainly, there is a need. We've seen an increase in overdoses occurring in the province as well as overdose deaths so there's a huge awareness," she said.

Ms. Buxton said she suspects use of the program has increased because of B.C.'s fentanyl crisis last year.

"[In 2012] we were totally unaware that there was going to be this huge push with the overdoses that are happening now," she said.

"I don't think anybody realized that any of this was going to happen."

Last year was the deadliest on record for drug users in B.C., due in large part to the emergence of powerful opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil. There were 755 fatal overdoses between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30, and the total for the year is expected to top 800.

The take-home naloxone program was created because of a small spike in heroin overdoses in 2011 to individuals who filled out a form and places with trained medical staff. It has steadily grown since then. On Dec. 1 of last year, the program expanded to make naloxone kits available in places where overdoses are likely to happen but do not have medical staff on site. It is also providing boxes that contain several doses of naloxone, for people who work in these places.

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"Because overdoses are happening so frequently, there are places where they're more likely to happen, like shelters, for example," Ms. Buxton said. "Rather than have individual staff members carry kits and things, we felt it was appropriate to have these boxes which we are calling facility overdose response boxes."

Ms. Buxton estimates that, to date, at least 50 boxes have been distributed to facilities across the province.

The B.C. Health Ministry contributed a little over $1-million for the program last year. The ministry has provided another $1.1-million to help cover the costs of intranasal naloxone used by police and RCMP because they do not want to deal with needles.

Laura Shaver, president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, said the program is the main life saver in city's Downtown Eastside, but is only one piece of the puzzle.

"There also needs to be injection sites, there needs to be regulations, and there definitely needs to be a naloxone program where people can get it for free," she said.

Mo Korchinski, project co-ordinator of Unlocking the Gates Peer Mentoring Program, which supports women after they are released from prison, said she cannot imagine how high the death toll would be if the naloxone program was not around.

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"The more I see in this last year, the more I am so thankful for Jane [Buxton], who you know really persisted on this program" she said.

Ms. Buxton said the plan for this year is to continue to promote and deliver kits to places where the risk of overdose is high, and to build a better database in order to monitor the program.

"One of the things naloxone brings is it really shows how the community cares about each other," she said. "People are coming forward, getting trained and getting kits so that they can help each other."

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