VICTORIA — More than 900 people died in British Columbia last year from illicit drug overdoses, but the provincial health minister says the toll could have been far higher and he warned the federal government Wednesday the epidemic is spreading across Canada.
The arrival of the powerful opioid fentanyl pushed the provincial death toll to a new peak of 914 overdose deaths in 2016. The BC Coroners Service reported the figure is almost 80 per cent higher than the 510 deaths due to illicit drugs in 2015.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said December was the worst month at 142 deaths, the highest monthly death total ever.
"The introduction of fentanyl to our province is a game-changer," Lapointe told a news conference. "We've now got this contaminant in the illicit drug system that is not manageable."
Health Minister Terry Lake said B.C.'s death toll would have been much higher if it had not been for overdose prevention measures undertaken by the province and the often heroic efforts by first-responders and others who rushed to provide aid to victims.
"The evidence suggests many, many more lives would have been lost had we not done what we have done," he said.
Lake said he has records of 96 overdose reversals at community overdose prevention sites where addicts can use drugs under supervision of health officials. There were no overdose deaths at the Insite safe-injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, he said.
"We've seen the mobile medical unit, over 600 overdoses treated," he said.
The B.C. government declared a public health emergency last spring in an attempt to reduce the rising numbers of drug overdose deaths.
The B.C. Centre For Disease Control also launched a take-home naloxone program for residents to reverse the effects of opioids.
The government also announced late last year that overdose prevention sites would be established in communities across the province where people could take illicit drugs while being monitored by trained professionals equipped with naloxone.
Lake said the federal government should declare a nationwide public health emergency, saying the problem is spreading across the country.
"It would focus, from a national perspective, action on this epidemic," he said. "We haven't had any additional funding from Ottawa to help us with this. Declaring a national public health emergency would focus all Canadians on an issue that is wracking B.C. at the moment."
Lapointe couldn't forecast an end, saying it will require long-term vigilance and programs on the part of governments, health providers, first-responders, families and drug users themselves.
She said she recognizes that those who are dependent on illicit drugs aren't going to be able to abstain, but she urged them to take the drugs in front of someone who has medical expertise or at least with a sober friend.
An average of nine people died every two days from overdoses last month, she said.
"We know that this represents suffering and devastation in communities across our province."
The coroner's service said fatalities aren't just happening among those who use opioid drugs, such as heroin.
"Cocaine and methamphetamines are also being found in a higher percentages of fentanyl-detected deaths in 2016," Lapointe said.
People aged 30 to 49 accounted for the largest percentage of overdose deaths last year, and males accounted for more than 80 per cent of the overall toll.
Dr. Perry Kendall, the province's chief medical health officer, said the number of deaths is difficult to confront.
"This was unexpected and disheartening," he said. "We still have not as yet been able to reverse the trend. This is frankly a North America-wide problem."
He said he will review European drug treatment programs that prescribe heroin-like medicines to addicts.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press