Two students travel to Portugal to present opioid research at prestigious conference

Two students from York University, Sonia Meerai and Radu Zamfir, travelled to Porto, Portugal, from April 28 to May 1 to present a poster at the 2019 Harm Reduction International Conference on their research on Canada’s response to the opioid overdose crisis.

Meerai is a first-year doctoral student in the Gender, Feminist & Women’s Studies program and Zamfir is a fourth-year student graduating with a bachelor of science in nursing this term. Both are research assistants representing a multisectoral team of academics, practitioners, peer support workers and program advisers from across Canada who are collaborating on research examining the roots of structural stigma and its impact on the response to the opioid overdose epidemic.

Sonia and Radu at the Harm Reduction International 2019 Conference in Porto, Portugal
Sonia Meerai and Radu Zamfir at the Harm Reduction International Conference in Porto, Portugal

The team also includes Gayle McFadden, the harm reduction educator and co-ordinator of the York Federation of Students Wellness Centre, and is supported by the Canadian Public Health Association. The research team is led by two faculty members in the School of Nursing, Linda Juergensen (RN, PhD candidate) and Simon Adam (RN, PhD) – both new to York University’s Faculty of Health this year.

During the conference, the students presented the findings of a recently completed study, “Deconstructing Political Policies and Perceptions of Drug Use and Stigma: A Scoping Review.”

Opioid use and deaths due to overdose in Canada are among the highest in the world.  According to Health Canada (2019), more than 10,000 people have died due to accidental overdose in the past three years, and the numbers continue to rise.

The findings from their study suggest perceptions of people who use drugs as “diseased” and/or “disorderly” are informing government policies and appear to be a constraining interest in taking more urgent action. This is most notably taking place in Ontario, the province with the second-highest number of deaths due to overdose in Canada.

“Sonia and Radu played an integral role in designing the search strategy and connecting the team through Covidence, a relatively new software management product with great potential to support collaborative research on a national and international scale,” said Juergensen.

Juergensen and Adam said they were excited to offer the two students the opportunity to attend the conference.

The study found that not only the “criminalization” of people who use drugs, but ideas about the nature of drug use as a “pathology” and over-reliance on the medical model to guide the response to the overdose crisis appears to be a source of structural stigma. In Juergensen’s view, “A reconceptualization of how we understand drug use and address stigma with a social justice perspective is going to be necessary to prevent further deaths and improve the lives of people affected by opioids.”

The abstract for the study was accepted into the conference as part of a competitive peer-review process. The Harm Reduction International Conference is held only once every two years in different countries. It is attended by delegates from more than 70 nations and is the premier global meeting for advocates, academics, practitioners, policy-makers and other stakeholders working in the field of harm reduction.