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Drug overdoses increasing dramatically in Interior Health region

Attendees at the community forum in Ashcroft on April 12 saw a quick demonstration of how to use a naloxone kit to prevent an opioid overdose. - James Heilman, MD
Attendees at the community forum in Ashcroft on April 12 saw a quick demonstration of how to use a naloxone kit to prevent an opioid overdose.
— image credit: James Heilman, MD

It has been just over a year since Dr. Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer, declared a public health emergency in B.C. in response to the epidemic of opioid-related overdoses in the province. Since then, a further 919 people have died in B.C. because of drug overdoses; and at a Community Forum in Ashcroft on April 12, representatives from Interior Health (IH) were on hand to discuss the overdose crisis in this region, and what is being done to combat it.

Philip Snyman, the manager of mental health and substance use services for IH Thompson rural, said that there are four pillars in the IH approach: “Prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and enforcement. There has been a drastic increase of overdose deaths in 2015 and 2016, and in almost 60 per cent of the drug overdose deaths reported in 2016 fentanyl was detected.” This is up from five per cent in 2012.

“The Thompson-Cariboo is one of the highest areas in the province in terms of the increase in deaths from illicit drug use. There was a massive increase in deaths between 2015 and 2016.” In 2015, the IH region saw 8.7 deaths per 100,000 people due to drug overdoses; that jumped to 21.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2016.

There were 158 drug overdose deaths in the IH area in 2016, up from 64 in the previous year. Snyman said that 80 per cent of the 2016 deaths occurred among males; 65 per cent occurred among males ages 19 to 44; and 85 per cent occurred indoors (in a residence, a housing facility, or public building). There have been no drug overdose deaths in the province at safe injection or consumption sites.

There were 63 overdose deaths in the Thompson-Cariboo region of IH in 2016, 41 of them in Kamloops (which saw seven overdose deaths in 2015). Snyman added that the other 21 deaths in the region took place in smaller, more rural communities, with Williams Lake, 100 Mile House, and Lillooet all “hot spots” in terms of overdoses.

He added that since many of the people suffering from an overdose go to emergency departments, IH began doing surveillance on suspected drug overdose victims in late May 2016. Their finding is that more than 550 people suffering from suspected opioid overdoses reported to emergency departments within IH between May 2016 and mid-February 2017.

Tina Keyes, a mental health and substance use team leader at IH, showed a take-home naloxone kit and gave a brief run-through of what it contained and how to use it. Naloxone can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and buy time for properly trained first responders to arrive.

Keyes noted that the kits are available, free of charge, for people who might be at risk of an opioid overdose, or for those who know someone who might be at risk. In Ashcroft, the kits are available at the emergency department of the Ashcroft hospital, as well as at the mental health and public health departments there. No information is taken, and a nurse will provide training on how to use the kits.

“We’re trying a multi-pronged approach in overdose prevention and response,” said Rae Samson, administrator of mental health and substance use services, IH west, speaking about the IH response to the overdose crisis. She cited a number of TV ads that feature a family member who has lost a loved one because of an overdose. “There is quite an organization of families who have lost someone to an overdose, and they’re willing to speak publicly.”

She also noted that a number of drugs—such as cocaine—used by recreational users now contain fentanyl, which puts these users at increased risk. “They don’t know it’s there.”

Samson said that counselling services are available in Ashcroft. “We try to match our health response to the people who present to us, and offer a variety of treatments. People from this area who present in Kamloops with overdoses can be referred back to services in the community.”

She added that it was “great” to be able to speak to the community. “We try to offer people things that are relevant. If you think there are things that would be helpful in your community, we’d be interested in hearing from you.”

When questioned about the impact the drug overdose crisis was having on Interior Health financially, Samson said that some money has been made available for health authorities. “This is putting a huge demand on emergency services. It’s a hard change to make, but we have to keep trying. And education is key.”

 

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