A significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths has prompted provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare a public health emergency in B.C.
There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in 2015 in B.C., which is a 30 per cent increase in deaths from 2014 (365 deaths).
In the northern region – which includes the region north, east and west from 100 Mile House to all provincial borders, and Haida Gwaii – there were 28 overdose deaths in 2015, and 10 deaths so far in 2016.
At the current rate in 2016, without additional steps to combat overdoses, B.C. could see 600 to 800 overdose deaths this year, according to the provincial government.
“The recent surge in overdoses is a huge concern for us,” said Health
Minister Terry Lake. “We have to do what’s needed to prevent overdoses and deaths, and what’s needed is real-time information.”
Declaring a public health emergency will allow medical health officers throughout the province to collect more robust, real-time information on overdoses in order to identify immediately where risks are arising and take proactive action to warn and protect people who use drugs.
British Columbia is the first province to declare a public health emergency in response to the current public health crisis from drug overdoses.
The new powers enacted by the provincial health officer provide one more tool in the provincial strategy to address this public health crisis. Currently, information on overdoses is only reported if someone dies, and there is some delay in the information.
“Health authorities have consistently asked for more data that will help inform responses and prevent future overdoses,” said Dr. Kendall. “This is the first step in making that happen.”
Fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic that can be hundreds of times more potent than heroin, has played a significant role in those overdose deaths. Of the 474 deaths in 2015, 32 per cent were fentanyl-related (153).
Fentanyl can be masked in virtually any consumable product. Many of the people who died were believed to be recreational pot users who did not know they were ingesting fentanyl.
There have been 201 overdose deaths connected to illicit drugs overall in 2016 to date, of which 64 involved fentanyl, either alone or in combination with other drugs. To contrast, in 2012, just five per cent of overdose deaths were connected to fentanyl.
In the northern region, there has also been a significant increase in fentanyl-detected deaths since 2012. While one fentanyl-related death was reported in 2012; seven deaths were reported in 2013; 10 in 2014; and 14 in 2015.
From now on, information regarding the circumstances of any overdose in the province where emergency personnel or health care workers respond will be reported as quickly as possible to the regional health authorities’ medical health officers. This is expected to include location, the drugs used and how they were taken. The information will be reported for both fatal overdoses and overdoses where the person recovers.
The province says this information will help prevent future overdoses and deaths by better targeting outreach, bad drug warnings, awareness campaigns and distribution of naloxone training and kits. It will also help health care workers connect with vulnerable communities and provide take-home naloxone to the people who need it.