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The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, January 31, 2018 2:39PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 31, 2018 5:43PM EST
VANCOUVER — 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 said last year’s death toll is 43 per cent higher than 2016 when 993 overdose deaths were recorded.
It’s been nearly two years since a public health emergency was declared, but provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall said Wednesday that the epidemic of unintentional poisoning deaths continues.
“Clearly, we are actually going to need to think more broadly and also think further outside both the box and our comfort zone if we’re going get ahead of and turn this epidemic around.”
Kendall called for continued expansion of treatment programs, including access to injectable hydromorphone therapy and suboxone.
He said decriminalization of illicit drugs fuelling the crisis is also needed, which would allow users to access safer substances.
“At the very least, we should decriminalize the individuals who are at risk in this epidemic.”
Kendall said recent talks with the federal government to consider the idea is encouraging.
But Dr. Patricia Daly, executive director and clinical lead for the B.C. Overdose Emergency Response Centre, said any regulatory change would not come soon enough.
“Even if (federal politicians) were to decide today they were going to adopt a public health regulatory approach to all psychoactive substances, it would take too long to make a difference in this particular crisis,” Daly said.
The highly potent opioid fentanyl remains the main cause of most fatalities, and was detected in about 81 per cent of deaths last year, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said.
Drug deaths not involving fentanyl have remained steady year-over-year at about 300 fatalities.
“Those mixing this drug outside a strictly controlled and monitored medical laboratory setting are unable to provide any guarantee of safety,” Lapointe warned, adding that prescription opioids or other legally administered drugs were not contributing to the rising death toll.
Lapointe said 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.
More than half of the 2017 deaths involved those between the ages of 30 and 49, and the coroner said four out of five of those who died were male.
The coroner said there appears to be more overdose deaths in the five days after income assistance payments are issued, with the average of six deaths per day.
The figures released are preliminary, Lapointe said, and the final number of deaths is expected to rise as more reports are analyzed.
While that toll is sobering, Daly said there were “some glimmers of hope.”
The overdose-reversing drug naloxone has been reported to have been administered more than 14,000 times since the province began distributing kits containing the life-saving drug, Daly said. The province has said nearly 30,000 naloxone kits were handed out in 2017.
The number of overdose calls reported to emergency services also outpaces the number of deaths, she said.
The final four months of 2017 also saw a slight dip in deaths. In the first eight months of the year, the province was averaging four deaths per day, but by the end of the year it was down to three deaths each day.
“We can’t say that’s a trend, but at least in the last four months, things are moving in a better direction,” Daly said.
The province declared a state of emergency in April 2016 over the crisis, prompting safe consumption sites to open across the province.
Daly said a mixed approach involving treatment, combating stigma, and other preventative measures is best.
“There is no single solution,” she said.
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