A worsening crisis

UPDATE: 3:30 p.m.

The death toll from illicit drug overdoses in British Columbia continues to rise. 

The BC Coroner Service released its findings into the crisis and reported there were 1,422 deaths in 2017 — a 43 per cent increase over 2016.

"There is no question that this is a public-health crisis that is impacting people from all walks of life," stated chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.  

The numbers in the Interior Health region are sobering — 238 people died from an overdose in 2017.  

  • There were 165 in 2016
  • There were 63 in 2015

"We continue to feel that the driver behind this crisis is very much the poison or the fentanyl in the illicit drug market," says  Interior Health chief medical health officer Dr. Trevor Corneil.

Approximately 81 per cent of the suspected illicit drug deaths to date in 2017 had fentanyl detected that is up from 67 per cent in 2016.
The numbers have not been broken down to reflect deaths in smaller communities like Penticton and Vernon, but they are in for Kelowna and Kamloops. 

In Kelowna, there has been a steady and concerning rise in overdose deaths. 

  • In 2015 there were 19      
  • In 2016 there were 47
  • In 2017 there were 75

In Kamloops, the numbers trend differently but are still tragic. 

  • In 2015 there were 7
  • In 2016 there were 44
  • In 2017 there were 39

"People who are using are people we know; they are not a group that we don't know," says Dr. Corneil. "Everyone has been impacted in their lives by somebody who has overdosed and died." 

According to the coroner's report, more than half of overdose deaths reported in 2017 were people between the ages of 30 and 49 years.

People between the ages of 19 to 59 years accounted for 90 per cent of suspected illicit drug overdose deaths.

Approximately four out of five who died were male.

"Trying to get ahead of that is going to require two things," explains Dr. Corneil, "significant increase in assessability and capacity for treatment, but also the destigmatization."

Interior Health expanded funding to its mobile consumptions sites in both Kelowna and Kamloops, and Dr. Corneil says that the authority stands by the success of the project.

"We are seeing significant utilization of those sites for information, harm reduction and in some cases for using as well. They are very much a successful access point for people who use drugs on a regular basis."

No deaths occurred at any supervised consumption site or at any of the drug overdose prevention sites in British Columbia.

The big question Dr. Corneil and his counterparts are grappling with is how do you to get the message across to someone who is not street entrenched?

Almost nine out of every 10 deaths occurred indoors — including more than half in private residences.

"Destigmatizing substance use, so that people who do use regularly feel they can access the health care they need," says Dr. Corneil.

"We need to continue to work together to help reduce stigma and increase awareness and support for those at risk."

The rate of illicit drug overdose deaths increased for the second consecutive year by approximately nine deaths per 100,000 to reach 30 deaths per 100,000 in 2017.

Earlier this week, Interior Health issued a public service announcement to users after nine people died in five days of a suspected overdose. 

Dr. Corneil has a message for everyone who is using or considering using: 

Do not use, but if you are going to use be aware that the product on the street is poisoned with fentanyl. And, if you have an addiction and you have to use then access the services that are in place.

ORIGINAL: 11:34 a.m.

Illicit drug overdoses claimed 1,422 lives in British Columbia last year, setting a new threshold for the crisis that has been fuelled by the powerful opioid fentanyl.

The BC Coroners Service says last year's death toll is 43 per cent higher than 2016 when 993 overdose deaths were recorded.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says the public health crisis is affecting people from all walks of life and government agencies need to continue working together to help reduce the stigma of drug addiction and increase awareness.

The province declared a state of emergency in April 2016 over the crisis, allowing more safe consumption sites to open and the distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

The coroner says there appear to be more overdose deaths in the five days after income assistance payments are issued, with the average of six deaths per day.

More than half of the 2017 deaths involved those between the ages of 30 and 49.

The coroner says four out of five of those who died were male.

The province began distributing free kits containing naloxone through pharmacies in December in an effort to curb overdose deaths. About 1,900 kits were made available through 220 pharmacies provincewide.

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