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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Fathers want to shine light on prescription drug deaths

Pic - Sara Carlin

Source: Oakville Beaver - Canada

Three parents whose children died after taking prescription drugs approached Ontario’s Standing Committee on Justice Policy last week to ask for stronger measures to prevent such deaths in the future.

The committee is in the process of amending the Ontario Coroner’s Act, but for Oakville MP Terence Young, Oakville resident Neil Carlin and Flamborough resident Mary Ann Murray, the proposed changes do not go far enough to illuminate what they say is a very real problem in the province.

“The overall goal is to reduce the number of injuries and deaths related to prescription drugs, which are the fourth leading cause of death in our society,” said Young.

“These deaths are mostly covered up and hidden. We want to shine a light on the risks so patients and families can make themselves safer when using prescription drugs.”

Young, whose 15-year-old daughter Vanessa died in 2000 after taking Prepulsid for bloating, is asking the committee to consider a number of changes to the coroner’s act including one provision that would keep the power to call an inquiry into a suspicious death in the hands of the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.

“In this version (of the coroner’s act) for some strange reason the minister is attempting to eliminate his own power to order an inquest,” said Young.

“They are eliminating the last chance for families to obtain justice, so we are recommending strongly that the minister keep the power, even if it’s used rarely, because if he doesn’t he’s giving more power to the coroner’s office, which is the exact opposite of what these changes are supposed to do.”

This issue is particularly close to Young’s heart. He said it was only through political pressure that an inquest was done into his daughter’s death.

That inquest resulted in a jury making 59 recommendations on how to make the drug surveillance system safer.

Carlin, whose 18-year-old daughter Sara committed suicide in 2007 after using the anti-depressant Paxil, also pointed out the importance of the minister’s power noting that the upcoming inquest into his daughter’s death probably wouldn’t be taking place without it.

“We eventually got the inquest largely due to political and media pressure. That was essentially pressure on the minister,” said Carlin.

“The way they want to change the act it would remove the politicians completely, so that your local member could not advocate for you. In a democracy that would be a step backwards, we need bureaucracy like this to have some public accountability.”

Young is also trying to change the way the coroner’s office looks at prescription drug related deaths.

Currently, there are only four categories for ‘means of death’ identified by the coroner’s act, which include homicide, suicide, accidental and natural.

Young noted that at the moment all prescription drug related deaths are falling under the natural category.

“This is one of the ways this curtain of silence has been pulled down over hundreds of deaths that are caused by prescription drugs,” said Young.

“The whole purpose of the coroner’s act is to identify how a person died and then make recommendations to prevent similar deaths, but if you’re classifying all prescription drug deaths as natural you’re never going to be able to reduce the number of deaths caused by prescription drugs.”

To counter this, Young is recommending the creation of a new category for means of death within the coroner’s act.

This would be a death that is ‘related to a medical treatment including a drug prescribed or otherwise recommended by a medical professional.’

Another change Young would like to make to the coroner’s act involves greater attention paid to SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor), a type of anti-depressant that works by altering the level of chemicals in the brain.

“These anti-depressants have been involved in innumerable acts of violence that have occurred without apparent motive. Anyone can go to a website called and find media reports on more than 2,600 acts of violence where the person was on SSRI anti-depressants or withdrawing from them, which is an even more dangerous time, ” said Young.

“We’re calling for the coroner’s act to direct the coroner’s to take blood samples and conduct toxicology tests on every suspicious death that is an unexpected death (especially where violence is involved).”

By doing this, Young believes the government will be able to determine just how widespread adverse reactions to SSRIs really are.

Other changes Young is calling for include changing the standard of proof for drug-related deaths from cause and effect, which Young said is so impossibly high smoking cannot be proven to cause cancer using that model.

Young would also like to see the coroner required to put out a public notice whenever there is a drug related death.

Oakville MPP Kevin Flynn noted the fact that the Standing Committee on Justice Policy, of which he is not a member, is amending the coroner’s act represents recognition by the government that things need to change with respect to the coroner’s office.

However, he does not agree with some Young’s statements, noting political meddling is not required for an inquest to be called.

“The Carlins have been pretty resolute in saying there is a public good that can come out of the tragedy that was their daughter’s death, that we can all learn something there. The new chief coroner agreed with them,” said Flynn.

“I don’t want anyone to think that it was political interference that ended up resulting in the Carlins’ request for an inquest being granted. I think what happened was the new chief coroner took a fresh look at it through a different pair of eyes and said, ‘You know what, there is a public good here. Let’s have an inquest.”

With their arguments presented the three parents must now wait to see if the committee adopts their amendments.

A decision is expected within the next few weeks.

With so much on the line, Murray notes that a positive decision is imperative.

“Thousands of people in Ontario die each year as a result of adverse prescription drug reactions, yet the Ontario Coroners Office continues to identify such medical treatment deaths as ‘natural,” she said.

“This longstanding practice is deceptive and creates the impression that such fatalities are unavoidable. It obscures the truth from families and fails to help protect the public from similar events.”

The Ontario Coroner’s Office chose not to comment on these proceedings.

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