Fatal overdose numbers in the Interior on par with last year: Interior Health

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As the overdose crisis enters its third year in B.C., people are continuing to die at an alarming rate from fatal overdoses.

New numbers released from the B.C. Coroners Service show the number of fatal overdoses in the Interior Health Authority is staying steady, and the authority's chief medical health officer Dr. Trevor Corneil says it's too soon to say if things are going to improve this year.

"In the Interior, we had 15 (overdose deaths) in December and we’ve had 19 in January, so that is similar to the rate that we saw last year," Corneil says. "The Okanagan continues to have the second highest rate of overdose deaths per 100,000 in the province, just behind Vancouver."

Within the Interior Health Authority there are three service delivery areas — the Okanagan, Kootenay Boundary and the Thompson Cariboo. In January, 12 people died from suspected overdoses in the Okanagan, six in the Thompson Cariboo and one in Kootenay Boundary.

The B.C. Coroners Service only provided city-specific overdose numbers for three municipalities for the month of January — Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria, so it's not yet known if deaths in cities like Kamloops or Kelowna are on pace with last year or have changed.

But toward the end of 2017, it looked like things in Kamloops were improving, or at least not worsening.

"We did see a significant decrease in absolute numbers in Kamloops and we do know that there is a significant collaborative effort to address the crisis," Corneil says. "We don’t know what this year’s numbers will look like. That was a trend, whether it continues we don't know."

Earlier this year, iNFOnews.ca spoke to Rae Samson, manager of mental health and substance use services for Interior Health. She said several things could have contributed to the stabilization of the overdose crisis in Kamloops, including an array of wrap around services like the ASK Wellness outreach organization, the Kamloops Rapid Access Addiction Clinic, the King Street Centre and the mobile overdose prevention site.

"We think that combination together has made the difference for Kamloops," Corneil says of the services.

Three things must change if this overdose crisis is going to be tackled, he says. First, the stigma around addiction needs to be put aside in order for it to be seen as an addiction disorder rather than a criminal behaviour.

"People who use don’t feel supported by family, friends, by the system, by the public," Corneil says.

Access to addiction treatment, especially those with an opioid addiction, needs to significantly increase as well, he says, along with stakeholder engagement in the community.

In terms of what it would take for Interior Health to confirm the number of overdose fatalities decreasing, Corneil says it would have to be a strong trend downward across the board.

"I think generally speaking we’d like to see a lower rate, or fewer numbers, of overdose deaths in Interior Health for months," Corneil says. "That would demonstrate we were able to make a difference in the context of this crisis in the health care perspective. Until we do that we actually need to continue to be active and invest in stigma reduction, in treatment capacity and stakeholder engagement."

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