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University of Ottawa Student Union Can't Administer Anti-Overdose Drug At Orientation Week

It's a liability issue.

09/01/2017 13:28 EDT | Updated 09/01/2017 13:35 EDT
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Student leaders at University of Ottawa orientation events are being trained to call emergency personnel in the case of an overdose.

Student leaders running the University of Ottawa's orientation week events won't be allowed to administer the opioid antidote naloxone in the event of an overdose due to liability concerns if the injection were to go wrong.

Hadi Wess, president of the undergraduate student union that runs the events, said the group initially planned to have about 100 student leaders carry naloxone kits to combat any overdoses that could occur during the parties and events that get underway over the long weekend. The measure was to prepare for the possibility that substances such as the deadly opioid fentanyl could be mixed with other drugs that might be consumed.

That plan was recently abandoned, however, after the union consulted with lawyers, local health organizations and protection services on campus and realized it could be held liable if the antidote was injected improperly and led to a person being injured, Wess said.

Emergency personnel, medical teams can administer

The University of Ottawa's official orientation week activities are run by the student union, Wess explained, a situation that is different from many other schools where the university administration is in charge.

"This is why we have to take a lot of extra measures when it comes to insurance and when considering liabilities," said Wess. "We are under the Ontario Corporation Act for not-for-profits, so it is a liability for us if (naloxone) is administered in a wrong way."

Student leaders at orientation events are being trained to call emergency personnel in the case of an overdose, Wess said, and on-campus medical teams will be called to administer naloxone if needed.

"These people are all 17, 18 year olds, it's the first time they're away from home, they're vulnerable, and they could go through substance abuse and peer pressure, so we want to make sure they're safe," Wess said.

There's no need for a certain diagnosis. You administer naloxone because there's no negative side effects.

Student leaders will also be allowed to carry naloxone when they're off duty and not wearing orientation week uniforms, he added.

Some other universities said they had not encountered similar concerns.

The University of Toronto said it had not heard discussion among student groups regarding the use of naloxone kits at orientation week. And Ryerson University said student leaders haven't shown a desire to carry naloxone this year, but noted that emergency medical services on campus will have the kits.

Meanwhile, the University of Calgary said it doesn't have a policy on the matter and doesn't direct students on what to do, but it does allow anyone to carry and administer naloxone if they wish to.

Brian Snyder / Reuters
Paramedics display a dose of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan, or Naloxone Hydrochloride, in an ambulance in Peabody, Massachusetts, U.S., August 8, 2017.

"We don't see a downside," said Debbie Bruckner, senior director of student wellness, access and support at the university. "What's clear to us from the medical officer of health is that if someone is struggling in terms of breathing, there's no need for a certain diagnosis. You administer naloxone because there's no negative side effects."

Rosana Salvaterra, an officer of health in Peterborough, Ont., said naloxone is a "powerful tool" against overdoses and said she was surprised student leaders won't be allowed to carry it at the University of Ottawa's orientation.

"Frankly, I can't see what the problem is," said Salvaterra, noting that injecting naloxone is no more dangerous than using an epi-pen. "I think the risk of injury is very, very minimal."

There aren't any negative side affects if naloxone was to be administered when it wasn't needed, Salvaterra said.

The biggest concern may be needle-related injuries, but Salvaterra said chances of injury during injection are mitigated by the fact that training is mandatory when receiving a naloxone kit. She also said naloxone needles are designed to retract after the injection takes place, which further reduces risk of injury.

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