VANCOUVER – British Columbia’s chief coroner said illicit drug overdoses have become the leading cause of unnatural death in the province, outpacing fatalities from vehicle crashes.
A new report from the BC Coroner Service identifies 308 illicit drug overdose deaths from January through May of this year, compared with 176 deaths in the same period last year.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said that overdose deaths could amount to 750 people by the end of 2016 if the trend continues. In comparison, there were 300 fatalities from motor vehicle incidents in the province in 2015.
Health Minister Terry Lake said the government is looking for solutions to stop the soaring number of overdose deaths, including adding more safe-consumption sites, similar to the safe-injection facility in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Lake said he wants the federal government to reconsider laws that restrict the opening of such facilities in order to allow health authorities to create more of these services.
“We have seen the evidence. We know that we can reduce overdose deaths, we can reduce other related harms, reduce hospitalizations and connect people to services once they’re ready to accept that help.”
The minister said Vancouver Coastal Health is planning to open five safe-consumption sites, and health authorities across the province are looking at similar options.
The province’s public health officer declared a state of emergency in April because of the rising numbers of drug-related deaths.
The report said the number of overdose deaths in May was down slightly from the peak in January, but Lake said it’s too early to determine if that will continue.
“One point is not a trend and so we have to make sure we continue to monitor and continue to do all we can to make sure those numbers start to come down,” he said.
To prevent more deaths from overdosing, the BC Centre for Disease Control has distributed 8,000 kits containing the opioid antidote naloxone.
Health Canada removed the prescription status on naloxone in March to improve accessibility.
The kits are now available at over 100 establishments across the province and 1,200 kits have already been used to reverse overdoses, said Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive director of the Centre for Disease Control.
“The option to get it out of pharmacies has also been very helpful and we need to make sure people are aware they can pick it up,” he said.
Tyndall said the kits have a larger dose of the antidote than what was previously prescribed for opioids in order to be effective on the more dangerous substance fentanyl.
The coroner’s report shows fentanyl was involved in 56 per cent of deaths in the first four months of this year compared with just five per cent of drug-related deaths in 2012.
Tyndall said more services are needed, including rapid access to detox programs, to help people with addictions.
The health minister acknowledged there is a gap and said the government is investing in new services and centres for mental health and substance abuse.
However, Lake said “you can’t flip a switch” and it will take time for new services to have an effect.