The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) says the province’s opioid crisis continues to disproportionately impact Indigenous communities.
According to data released Monday, there were 89 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths among First Nations, Métis and Inuit individuals between January and May, a 93 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.
First Nations, Métis and Inuit people represent 3.4 per cent of the province’s population yet accounted for 16 per cent of all overdose deaths in the province over the first five months of the year.
“These data demonstrate that the opioid crisis continues to disproportionally affect vulnerable B.C. First Nations people. The concurrent COVID-19 pandemic is also creating challenges for those struggling with addiction,” Chair of the First Nations Health Council Charlene Belleau said.
“Properly resourced treatment centres and culturally safe harm reduction strategies will be critical moving forward. Now, more than ever, our people need this support.”
The province recorded 170 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in May, the highest monthly total ever recorded in the province.
The spike has been attributed to the combination of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing opioid crisis.
COVID-19 safety measures have disrupted the drug supply, making the current supply more toxic. Health officials are also concerned public health measures such as physical distancing and staying home may be having unintended negative consequences for people who use substances.
People may be less likely to access harm reduction services and supports and may be using alone when they otherwise would not have.
The number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people dying from illicit drugs has increased significantly each year since 2016 when B.C. declared the public health emergency – except for in 2019, when there was a 44 per cent drop in overdose deaths.
In 2019, 113 First Nations, Métis and Inuit individuals died of an overdose.
“It is devastating for our families and communities to lose loved ones to the combined opioid and COVID-19 crises,” FNHA board chair Colleen Erickson said.
“This forces us to renew our efforts to connect with and support those who are now more vulnerable than ever.”
The health authority says barriers to treatment for Indigenous people include concerns of underlying systemic racism and experiences of stigma among people who consume alcohol and other substances.
Indigenous women are also disproportionally affected.
“We know that First Nations women are far more likely than non-First Nations women to die of an overdose,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
‘We need to do better to support Indigenous women to break out of this cycle.”