The number of illicit drug overdose deaths across B.C. declined in February, raising hopes that the province has turned a corner in its battle against the epidemic.
The B.C. Coroners Service reported Thursday that 102 people died from a suspected drug overdose last month — down from 126 deaths in January and 122 deaths in February 2017.
“We never know month to month because things can change, and March, for all we know, could be a much worse month,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.
“But certainly the trend is showing [fewer deaths] than last year and that’s a really positive sign.”
Lapointe attributed the decline to the expansion of safe consumption sites and overdose prevention sites and the increased availability of naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
She cited a recent report from Island Health showing that its harm-reduction sites reversed 820 overdoses since December 2016.
“So that’s got to be making a difference,” Lapointe said.
Island Heath has opened nine sites, including four in Victoria and others in Campbell River, Courtenay, Nanaimo, Port Alberni and Duncan.
There were 16 overdose deaths on Vancouver Island in February, compared with 29 in January and 25 in February 2017.
“Overdose prevention services are saving lives,” said Dr. Richard Stanwick, Island Health’s chief medical health officer, in a statement.
“These sites are one of many tools we’re using to tackle the opioid crisis, and it is clear that without these services, more people would have lost their lives.”
Despite the improved statistics, overdoses in B.C. still killed an average of 3.6 people a day in February. The vast majority of victims continue to be male, and more than 90 per cent of the deaths occurred inside — largely in private residences.
“So while it’s a relief that we’re not continuing to see the significant increases we saw for much of last year in terms of accidental overdoses deaths, we still are seeing a tragic number of deaths every month,” Lapointe said.
“This is a huge public health concern.”
The overdose crisis is linked to the rise of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which was detected in 83 per cent of the deaths last year.
A death review panel, convened by Lapointe, concluded that the unpredictable potency and content of drugs remains the biggest problem.
The panel, which examined 1,854 deaths in the 19 months from January 2016 through July 2017, called for improved drug-checking services, wide access to naloxone, and expanded addiction care, including therapies that use opiate substitutes such as methadone and Suboxone to prevent withdrawal.
The panel concluded that such treatments are more effective than “abstinence-based” programs.
“With opiate use disorders, quick detoxification is not recommended as an evidence-based practice,” said Michael Egilson, who chaired the panel. “Removing people quickly from opioids, increases the risk. If they go back to using opioids, they’ve lost their tolerance and increases the likelihood that they could die.”
The panel found that drug users released from jails were at high risk of dying from a fatal overdose, likely because they had lost their tolerance to street drugs.
Of the deaths reviewed, 333 or 18 per cent were individuals who died while under community supervision or within 30 days of release from a correctional facility.
The panel recommended that B.C. Corrections make sure that people released from jails have naloxone kits and know how to access drug-checking and addiction services in the community.