EDITORIAL: Better data, better response

Declaration of a province-wide public health emergency regarding fentanyl and other drugs is a good step to finding a solution.

As communities across the province – including Surrey and White Rock – continue to deal with warnings about a dangerous and deadly batch of street drugs, including fentanyl, the provincial health officer has taken the unprecedented step of declaring a province-wide public health emergency.

Dr. Perry Kendall said Thursday the step was necessary because of the alarming number of overdose deaths occurring in the province.

Last month at Peace Arch Hospital, a 24-year-old died of a suspected drug overdose, according to a family member. Across the province, the death toll climbed to 474 in 2015 – up 30 per cent over 2014. At the current rate, that number could soar another 90 per cent, to as many as 800 overdose deaths this year. The carnage is partly being blamed on the profusion of drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much stronger than heroin.

While detailed information on specific overdose cases is not available due to patient confidentiality, the numbers alone are startling enough, and Fraser Health spokesperson Tasleem Juma told Peace Arch News this week that drug users here on the Semiahmoo Peninsula could be at a high risk of encountering drugs – heroin, cocaine and even marijuana – that have been laced with fentanyl.

“The things people think they are taking are not necessarily what they are actually taking,” she said.

Kendall says the declaration of a health emergency will give health authorities more power to collect data and craft appropriate responses. That information is vital.

Although health officials know how many people die, they lack concrete numbers on the total number of overdoses, because the information is only collected when a death occurs.

Health officials need real-time data, not anecdotal stories, so they can dedicate resources where they’re needed.

“Health authorities have consistently asked for more data that will help inform responses and prevent future overdoses,” said Kendall.

This information will help them better target outreach, issue bad-drug warnings and create more affective awareness campaigns.

All those steps should be welcomed, where concrete information on the extent of the problem is hard to come by.

Of course, better data won’t solve the tragedy of addiction. But it will aid our response.

Addiction is a disease that requires treatment. It should not be an automatic death sentence.