Emergency crews responding to a drug overdose in Surrey. (Photo: Now-Leader file)

Illicit drug overdose deaths across B.C. trending down for 2018

Death Review Panel on overdose deaths make three major recommendations

The overdose crisis may be seeing a bit of relief, but work is still to be done to combat the more than hundred people still dying each month from illicit drugs like fentanyl.

Looking back on the past 19 months of death in B.C., the BC Coroners Service Death Review Panel released a report Thursday with a number of recommendations to stop the deadly epidemic touching all corners of the province.

Between Jan. 1, 2016 and July 31, 2017, there were 1,854 overdose deaths in the province attributed to illicit drugs, according to the latest stats from the coroner.

Trends continue to represent the vast majority of the lives being claimed, with men aged 19-59 seeing the lions share of deaths. Most continue to occur in private homes, single occupancy motels or rooming houses.

Only about one in every 10 deaths were of someone who she considered to be ‘homeless’ at the time, the report says.

It was also found that a substantial number of overdose deaths occurred among people with recent health care and/or recent or previous interactions with B.C. Corrections. Many of the deceased had also sought treatment in the past and experienced relapses.

However, overdose numbers are no longer spiking and have begun to trend lower the past few months. There were 102 suspected overdose deaths in Feb 2018, representing a 16 per cent decrease over the same period in 2017 and a 19 per cent decrease from the number of deaths occurring in January 2018.

READ MORE: Over 1,400 people died of drug overdoses in B.C. last year

“Overdoses aren’t climbing anymore,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. “March could be worse, but the trend is showing less than last year and that’s a very positive sign.”

The trend saw a high of 150 in April 2017 and has slowly been falling throughout the year, in part due to so many overdose prevention sites and overdose programs that have since been initiated. The opioid antidote naloxone has also become more popular and is readily available.

The average number of illicit drug overdose deaths for February 2018 still hovered between three and four per day.

“They were family, they were friends, community members; and the loss of their lives was deeply felt,” said death review panel chair Michael Egilson. “More died during these 19 months than all murder, suicide and motor vehicle accidents combined.”

Death review panel recommendations

The panel also includes 21 experts from health care, policing, corrections, First Nations, education, and mental health and addictions. Collectively they identified three main areas to focus on in B.C.:

  • The need to provincially regulate and appropriately oversee treatment and recovery programs and facilities to ensure that they provide evidence-based quality care, and that outcomes are closely monitored and evaluated;
  • The need to expand access to evidence-based addiction care across the continuum, including improved opioid agonist therapies (OAT) and injectable opioid agonist therapies (iOAT) access, as well as a full spectrum of recovery supports; and,
  • The need to improve safer drug-use, through the creation of accessible provincial drug checking services using validated technologies.

READ MORE: Province launches emergency response centre to curb overdose deaths

“The clearest finding that has come through this review is the reaffirmation that the biggest problem we face in terms of overdose deaths is the recent increase in drug toxicity,” said Egilson.

“In particular, the potency and content of illicit substances is unpredictable; this is why we’re advocating for access to safer drug use, including opioid agonist therapy, tools like drug checking and Take Home Naloxone kits, as well as an evidence-based treatment and recovery system of care.”

Other findings part of a detailed review of one-third (615) of the deaths during the 19-month period showed many were regular drug users, and roughly 33 per cent had some kind of interaction or involvement with B.C. Corrections, or were currently under supervision.

Indigenous people were also overrepresented (10 per cent) compared to their total population (3.4 per cent) within the province.

Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey continue to see the highest number of overdoses in 2018, with 57 per cent of all illicit drug overdose deaths occurring in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. The rates of overdose deaths are highest in Vancouver Okanagan, Fraser East, Central Vancouver island and North Vancouver Island Health Authority Services delivery areas.

So far this year, there have been no recorded deaths at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.

100,000 visits to Island Health overdose prevention sites

Since opening in December 2016, Island Health has reported more than 100,000 visits to its facilities with 820 overdose reversals and zero deaths. The number of visits have steadily increased at the nine community sites across the region, including Victoria, Nanaimo, Courtenay, Campbell River and Port Alberni.

“Overdose prevention services are saving lives,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health Chief Medical Health Officer. “These sites are one of many tools we’re using to tackle the opioid crisis, and it is clear that without these services, more people would have lost their lives.”

READ MORE: B.C. sees 125 overdose deaths in January

Overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites are places where people can use drugs under the direct supervision of trained staff. These locations also offer a variety of health services, including referrals to mental health counselling and the access to connect visitors with other services and supports, including treatment.



ragnar.haagen@bpdigital.ca

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