Illicit drug-related deaths in B.C. increased by 75 per cent between January and May compared to the same time frame in 2015, according to new statistics released by the BC Coroners Service.
From January through May 2016, there were 308 accidental drug overdose deaths in B.C. and the large majority of those deaths involved the use of fentanyl.
In April, the significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths in B.C. prompted Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare a public health emergency, which was the first time the PHO has served notice under the Public Health Act to exercise emergency powers.
British Columbia was the first province to take this kind of action in response to a public health crisis from drug overdoses. But so far, the PHO’s declaration of a public-health emergency doesn’t appear to have slowed the number of overdose deaths, according to B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake.
Fentanyl overdoses have been steadily increasing in B.C. over the past five years. According to the PHO, the increase in drug overdose deaths for which fentanyl was present went from five per cent in 2012 to approximately 31 per cent in 2015.
The recent statistics also show that in January 2016, there were 77 drug overdose deaths, which is the largest number of deaths in a single month for an extended period.
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.
~ with files from Canadian Press