A significant increase in drug-related overdoses and deaths has prompted provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall to declare a public health emergency.
This is the first time the provincial health officer has served notice under the Public Health Act to exercise emergency powers. B.C. is the first province to take this kind of action in response to the current public health crisis from drug overdoses. The action will allow medical health officers throughout the province to collect more robust, real-time information on overdoses in order to identify immediately where risks are arising and take proactive action to warn and protect people who use drugs.
“The recent surge in overdoses is a huge concern for us,” said Health Minister Terry Lake. “We have to do what’s needed to prevent overdoses and deaths, and what’s needed is real-time information. Medical health officers need immediate access to what’s happening and where so they can deploy the necessary strategies to prevent these tragedies.”
The new powers enacted by the provincial health officer provide one more tool in the robust provincial strategy to address this public health crisis. Currently information on overdoses is only reported if someone dies, and there is some delay in the information.
“Health authorities have consistently asked for more data that will help inform responses and prevent future overdoses,” said Dr. Kendall. “This is the first step in making that happen. Over the next few weeks, I’ll work with medical health officers, health authorities, emergency room staff, paramedics and other first responders and the BC Coroners Service to determine how best to collect and share the data.”
Information regarding the circumstances of any overdose in the province where emergency personnel or health care workers respond or provide care will be reported as quickly as possible to the regional health authorities’ medical health officers. This is expected to include location, the drugs used and how they were taken. The information will be reported for both fatal overdoses and overdoses where the person recovers.
This information will help prevent future overdoses and deaths by better targeting outreach, bad drug warnings, awareness campaigns and distribution of naloxone training and kits. It will help health care workers connect with vulnerable communities and provide take-home naloxone to the people who need it. The information will be collected by the provincial health officer and analyzed at a provincial level by the BC Centre for Disease Control to better inform management of this public health crisis.
Dr. Kendall consulted B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner prior to giving notice of this action under the Public Health Act, and will continue to consult on plans to collect information. The information collected will be protected as confidential medical records.
- There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in 2015, which is a 30% increase in deaths from 2014 (365 deaths).
- There were 76 deaths in January 2016, which is the largest number of deaths in a single month since at least 2007.
- At the current rate in 2016, without additional steps to combat overdoses, B.C. could see 600 to 800 overdose deaths this year.
- The increase in the proportion of illicit drug overdose deaths for which fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs) :
- 2012 = 5%
- 2013 = 15%
- 2014 = 25%
- 2015 = 31% (approximate - not all investigations are concluded)
For more information on the Take Home Naloxone program, please visit: http://towardtheheart.com
For addition statistics on overdose deaths see:
BC Coroners Service – Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in B.C. Jan. 1, 2007 – Feb. 29, 2016: http://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/public-safety-and-emergency-services/death-investigation/statistical/illicit-drug.pdf
A backgrounder follows.
Kristy AndersonMedia Relations Manager
Ministry of Health
250 952-1887 (media line)
Provincial action to prevent overdoses and deaths:
- B.C. funds harm reduction programs and services, including needle distribution and collection, opioid substitution treatment, supervised consumption services, and B.C.’s Take Home Naloxone program.
- B.C. was the first province in Canada to establish a provincewide take-home naloxone program.
- In January 2016, the emergency medical assistants regulation was amended to permit licensed fire rescue first responders to administer naloxone and expand the number of paramedics able to do so. To date, 797 firefighters have been trained in 22 fire departments and 19 overdoses have been reversed. B.C. was the first province to allow firefighters to carry naloxone.
- With Health Canada’s decision to make naloxone available without a prescription, the Ministry of Health and BC Centre for Disease Control have collaborated with the BC College of Pharmacists to develop naloxone training for B.C. pharmacists, so they can prepare patients and their representatives on how to use it in an overdose situation. Education sessions are scheduled in several communities around the province, and web-based training has been launched to support pharmacists practicing in smaller communities. B.C. was the first province to make non-prescription naloxone available through pharmacies.
- Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver Police Department and the BC Centre for Disease Control developed Know Your Source, a public service campaign to raise awareness about overdoses risks due to fentanyl and other drugs in the Lower Mainland.
- Provincial partners developed www.towardtheheart.com to provide information and resources about harm reduction and to help British Columbians find local harm reduction supply distribution sites.
BC Drug Overdose and Alert Partnership:
- The BC Drug Overdose and Alert Partnership (DOAP) was established to prevent and reduce the harms associated with substance use.
- Led by the BC Centre for Disease Control, the partnership provides a surveillance and early warning network with provincial partners to issue alerts about dangerous illicit drugs such as fentanyl.
- The group identifies and disseminates timely information about harms related to substance use including overdose, adverse reactions to contaminated products, and other emerging issues.
- It has representatives from health authorities, public health, BC Coroners Service and law enforcement agencies
- The group recently produce an Opioid Overdose Response Strategy which recommended a number of actions, including increasing “timely collection, analysis, and dissemination of data on drug overdose events in collaboration with regional and provincial partners.” (http://www.bccdc.ca/health-professionals/clinical-resources/harm-reduction/bc-drug-overdose-alert-partnership-doap)
Take Home Naloxone Program:
- Naloxone is a safe medication that can reverse the effects of an overdose of an opioid drug, such as heroin, morphine, fentanyl or oxycodone.
- Since 2012, people who use opioids and have overdose response training can receive “take home” naloxone kits from more than 160 sites throughout B.C. at no cost.
- Take-home naloxone kits have resulted in reversal of 488 opioid drug overdoses.
- Almost 6,400 kits have been distributed to people who use opioids, and more than 6,800 people trained to administer naloxone, including people who use opioids, their friends and family, and service providers.