By Dale Boyd
The region served by Interior Health has been “hit hard” by the opioid epidemic, says the agency’s medical health officer, but new tactics are being brought to bear in the fight.
“We’ve come a long way, but unfortunately these deaths continue to occur,” Dr. Silvina Mema last Thursday told the board of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkmeen.
Fentanyl is the sole reason for the Interior Health region facing the second highest number overdose deaths in B.C. behind only the Vancouver area, she said, as according to the BC Coroner’s Service, almost 90 per cent of overdose victims had fentanyl in their system.
Data gleaned from coroners’ reports, paramedic calls and emergency room visits and presented to the RDOS doesn’t paint a pretty picture, with a spike in overdose-related numbers coinciding with the increase in fentanyl in the region two to three years ago.
“Efforts continue and we have now begun to re-think how we deliver services, and there has been a re-structure provincially,” Dr. Mema added, with 3,800 naloxone kit distributed last year in the region and 12,000 client visits at mobile supervised consumption sites.
Dr. Mema said the two largest barriers the health authority faces in the battle are societal stigma against drug users and capacity for facilities and resources.
The numbers show just how fast the epidemic caught on, with 126 overdose deaths in the Okanagan in 2017, compared to 77 in 2016 and just 13 in 2007.
Specific numbers for small communities such as Osoyoos and Oliver are not released due ostensibly to privacy concerns.
Most overdose cases involve men between 20 and 49 years of age, with the Indigenous population over-represented as three times more likely to overdose, Dr. Mema said.
Toni Boot, an RDOS director and Summerland councillor, asked if the legalization of recreational marijuana would have any impact on the fentanyl crisis, and if there are concerns about fentanyl-laced weed.
“We have not heard of fentanyl-laced cannabis,” Dr. Mema replied. “I don’t have the crystal ball, as you say, but I’m not too concerned about that.”
Dr. Mema did note, however, there have been instances of fentanyl-laced cocaine.
She urged continued work by service agencies and other community groups to address concerns that surround addictions, such as mental health and homelessness.
“This is not work the health authority alone can do,” Dr. Mema said.