British Columbia’s fentanyl crisis might have already reached its crescendo between 2017-2018 but recent statistics show the issue is not going away in the Northwest.
According to recent statistics released on fentanyl deaths in the Province by the BC Coroners Service, the Northwest region is the only health service delivery area (of sixteen) where total fentanyl-detected deaths have not decreased between the first ten months of 2018 and the first ten months of 2019.
The Northwest had 12 fentanyl-detected deaths — meaning a death where the presence of fentanyl was confirmed by medical professionals — in all of 2018 and in 2019 from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, the period the recently-released statistics cover.
Dr. Rakel Kling is a medical health officer with Northern Health.
She said it’s hard to determine exactly why numbers in the Northwest region (which includes Smithers and its surrounding area) aren’t dropping as proportionately.
“It is clear that just in terms of the actual total number of deaths that we’re not seeing the same decrease in the Northwest that we’re seeing elsewhere,” she said.
But while the what might be obvious, Dr. Kling said the why is a lot tougher to pinpoint.
“We don’t have any good reason why this is happening. We don’t know why we’re seeing a decrease in deaths in other communities around the province.”
Kling also cautioned about drawing conclusions from such a small sample size — the Northwest reported only 12 deaths in all of 2018 compared to the Northern Interior’s (Northern Health’s largest service delivery area) 54.
“One added death or one less death can make a big difference in how we interpret the numbers,” she said.
She added there are a number of factors that affect where drugs circulate and how they get to different parts of communities and that Northern Health has made harm reduction a priority within the region.
“We do have take-home naloxone kits which is one of our best things that we can do against opioid overdoses,” said Kling.
“We would just really encourage that people have their take-home naloxone kits and make sure to access those.”
The Interior News was unable to determine how many fentanyl-detected deaths, if any, occurred in the Northwest region between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31.
The health service delivery area spans all the way from Houston west along Highway 16 to Prince Rupert and includes a number of population centres including Smithers, Terrace and Kitimat. It also includes Haida Gwaii and a number of northern communities in the province such as Atlin and Dease Lake.
Province-wide, numbers dropped by an average of just under 37 per cent: from 1,111 in the first 10 months of 2018 to 702 for the same period in 2019.
While the Northwest’s numbers didn’t decrease, Northern Health’s overall regional numbers seem to reflect that same average, decreasing to 45 deaths in the first 10 months of 2019 compared to approximately 72 for the same period in 2018 (this figure was determined by averaging the total number of deaths in 2018 and dividing by the first ten months of the year) constituting an approximately 37.5 per cent decrease.
Despite the decrease, the BC Coroners Service is continuing to urge caution due to what it describes as an “unpredictable, toxic, illicit drug supply that is present in British Columbia.”
“While Coroners Service data shows that the number of fatalities related to illicit drug toxicity has decreased this year, we know from our partners in health care that the number of non-fatal drug toxicity events remains high,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner in a December 2019 media release addressing the issue. “The drug supply in our province is unpredictable and perilous, and the long-term impacts of drug toxicity can be severe.
“The decrease in the number of fatalities is a promising trend, but we need to continue to keep our focus on this crisis of unsafe supply and continue to explore meaningful measures to reduce the risks for all British Columbians.”
From January to October 2019, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) paramedics responded to more than 20,000 overdose calls around the province, an average of 64 potential overdose/poisoning calls per day in B.C.
A large element of reducing fentanyl-detected deaths has been arming the general public with the knowledge of how to use naloxone kits, with first responders reminding people it’s recommended they know how to administer the potentially life-saving drug even if they don’t use drugs themselves.
Based on data from BCEHS, when paramedics respond to a potential overdose patient, the patient has a 99 per cent chance of survival.