Drug overdose deaths in B.C. hit record high in 2018

Vancouver, Victoria and Surrey retain highest death rates but Kamloops, Prince George climbing

British Columbia experienced another record year of drug overdose deaths in 2018 with at least one person dying on all but 11 days.

And, the province’s chief medical health officer said, the numbers indicate the time has arrived to deliver access to regulated opioids to those at risk.

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The death rate is another tragic record number, although it has perhaps reached a plateau, as the percentage jump is minimal compared with previous years. In 2018, there were 1,489 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths, compared with 1,487 in 2017.

“The illicit drug supply is unpredictable and unmanageable, and fentanyl is now implicated in 86% of overdose deaths," BC Coroners Service chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said Feb. 7. By comparison, cocaine is implicated in 49% of deaths and methamphetamines and amphetamines in 31%.

But, she stressed, 77% of the deaths are of regular users, which could serve as a warning to people who might want to use drugs recreationally but are at risk of not getting what they think they’re buying on the street.

Lapointe said the illicit drug fatality rate now far exceeds the motor vehicle suicide and homicide death rates combined.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the numbers continue to be distressing, adding the crisis has had an impact on life expectancy rates in the province due to the sheer volume of people dying.

She said work to prevent deaths continues, with 140,000 naloxone kits to reverse opioid overdoses distributed and overdose prevention sites and drug-testing services now available.

But it’s not enough, she said. What’s needed is access to a regulated, clean supply of drugs so users can stay alive and possibly move toward treatment and recovery.

Another issue continues to be people using medications to deal with pain. Officials said many move to street drugs to deal with such issues and wind up dying.

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, agreed. She lost her son five years ago. She said the best way to tackle the issue head-on is “to supply safe, regulated drugs” as well as train doctors and educate youth.

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s a giant step toward saving the lives of our loved ones.”

And, Henry added, the medical community needs to come more on board with training for physicians to diagnose and help treat addiction issues.

“We need to develop a substance abuse system of care,” said Dr. Evan Wood, executive director of the B.C. Centre on Substance Use. “Health care provider education in addiction care is a significant gap.”

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said Victoria continues to work to counter the crisis with increases in access to mental-health and addictions services and supports. “"My heart goes out to every family that has lost a loved one to overdose,” Darcy said. “Each life lost is an unspeakable tragedy.”

Rates and Communities

By the numbers, most deaths involve males using alone in private residences.

In 2018, 71% of people those were aged 30 to 59. Males accounted for 80% of all suspected overdose deaths.

Overdose rates are consistently higher in welfare weeks.

The three cities with the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths in 2018 were Vancouver with 382 (up from 376), Surrey (210, up from 178) and Victoria (94 - no change).

Kamloops saw a significant jump, from 38 deaths in 2017 to 48 last year. Prince George’s count almost doubled, going from 24 deaths to 46. New Westminster also saw an increase from 25 to 34.

The rates for other communities were:

  • Kamloops: 48, up from 38;
  • Chilliwack: 35, up from 22;
  • Kelowna: 55, down from 75;
  • Burnaby – 43, down from 44 in 2017;
  • New Westminster – 34, up from 25; and
  • Langley – 29, down from 36.


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