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B.C. health officials release drug overdose statistics for 2019

Three overdose deaths a day

Nearly three people a day died from illicit drugs in 2019, announced B.C. health officials Monday morning.

B.C. Coroners Service chief coroner Lisa Lapointe confirmed there were 981 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths last year in the province.

This represents an average of 2.7 deaths per day, and officials believe this number will likely increase as investigations conclude. More than four in every five deaths in 2019 had fentanyl detected in post-mortem testing. 

From 2018 to 2019, illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected deaths decreased in Kelowna, Vernon and Kamloops, but increased in Penticton. 

Illicit drug toxicity deaths dropped between 2018 and 2019 from 55 to 27 in Kelowna, 46 to 24 in Kamloops and 24 to 13 in Vernon. In Penticton, this increased from 16 to 19. A delay in how overdose statistics are released means these year-end figures could still climb higher.

Indigenous people and middle-aged men were over-represented in the statistics, with more than three-quarters of suspected overdose deaths in 2019 involving males, and 71 per cent involving people aged 30 to 59.

"More than 5,000 lives have been lost in B.C. since 2016 as a result of illicit drug toxicity," says Lapointe. "These deaths have deeply hurt families and communities across our province and represent an immense loss of potential in all walks of life. The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 remains higher than motor vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined, and B.C. continues to bear the heaviest toll of the impacts of the unpredictable, profit-driven, illicit drug market.

"Collectively, we continue to urge for greater access to safe supply for those in our community who are experiencing, and struggling to live with, substance use disorder."

Among the drug types involved in illicit drug toxicity deaths, illicit fentanyl has increased from 5 per cent in 2012 to 89 per cent in 2018. Methamphetamine has also increased from 14 per cent in 2012 to 36 per cent in 2018. Cocaine, heroin, and other opioids have steadily declined from 2012 to 2018; however, cocaine remains involved in 51 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2018.

Despite a 36 per cent decrease of illicit drug toxicity deaths over the past year, the 2019 statistics are virtually identical to 2016 figures, when the provincial health emergency was declared. Data from B.C. Emergency Health Services shows the decrease in deaths did not equate to a decrease in drug overdose-related call outs.

Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had the highest rate of illicit drug toxicity deaths (23 deaths per 100,000 individuals), followed by Northern Health Authority (22.5 deaths per 100,000 individuals) in 2019.

Interior Health Authority had approximately 17.2 deaths for 100,000 individuals, in data collected up from Jan. 1 till Oct. 31, 2019. 

Five years into the declared public health emergency related to illicit drug overdoses, Dr. Bonnie Henry says we are still in the midst of the biggest health crisis facing B.C. communities.

"The decrease in the number of British Columbians dying from this crisis is encouraging and indicates that our harm-reduction measures to keep people alive are working," says Henry. "We're dealing with addiction. And addiction is an illness, a health condition. We are in no way out of this crisis yet. We continue to see very high rates of overdose events across the province and are seeing increased numbers of young people with long-lasting health effects after overdosing.

Henry renewed her call for a safe drug supply or "pharmaceutical alternative, instead of what is clearly a toxic street-drug supply" on the streets.

It's not enough just to save lives, says Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use.

"An overdose can lead to long-term harms, such as traumatic brain injury that will last a lifetime. Lives are being saved, but saving lives alone is not nearly enough. We must now turn our attention toward implementing strategies to prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place - which must start with a legally regulated drug supply."



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