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More resources, awareness could be behind Interior's drop in overdose deaths

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November 10, 2017 - 8:30 PM

During the month of September, nine people died from an illicit drug overdose in the Interior Health Authority, a sharp decline from monthly numbers usually seen in the region.

Kelowna, which recently had more opioid overdose-related hospitalizations than any other Canadian city, experienced three deaths from overdose that month, while Kamloops experienced one death.

New numbers from the B.C. Coroners Service were released yesterday, Nov. 9, showing nine deaths across the Interior Health Authority for the month of September, the first time the monthly death toll was less than 10 since last year.

It’s too soon to tell what’s behind the drop in deaths, Interior Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Silvina Mema says, or whether these lower numbers are going to be part of a new trend.

“We see a little bit of hope when numbers decline in such a drastic way,” Mema says. “(But) it’s not good news that nine people died, it’s a tragedy for those families… it’s a loved one that died.”

Although Mema says it’s too early to pinpoint what lowered the death toll in September, she’s hopeful more people using resources like overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption sites and take home naloxone kits. She points out International Overdose Awareness Day took place on Aug. 31, and believes that could have sparked a more open and frank discussion around drug use.

“That got a lot of promotion from the media, so there was a lot of talk about overdose prevention,” she says. “Maybe that has had some impact on the people who use drugs. Maybe they see that and that has played a role.”

Kelowna and Kamloops also have a couple of months experience under their belts for supervised consumption and overdose prevention sites. Mema says people may be taking more advantage of the services; staff could be building stronger relationships with users and encouraging more people to use in these facilities.

She points out that people have overdosed at these sites, and if they weren’t at those locations or they were using alone, they could have died. But since these services were implemented, no one has died at an overdose prevention site or supervised consumption site, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

There’s still one dark cloud hanging over the discussion drug use and addiction – stigma – a word used virtually every time experts speak about this. wrote earlier this year about the main demographic being affected by fatal overdoses are men between 30 and 59 years old, who are using drugs indoors.

That’s still the case, with yesterday’s numbers released by the Coroners Service showing nearly 90 per cent of overdoses are occurring indoors. Knowing who is dying from these overdoses can help personalize this crisis for some people, Mema says.

“When you’re beginning to see faces and stories, all of that contributes to people being more compassionate with the people who use drugs, and the conversation is becoming more normal,” Mema says. “We are still a long way from where we would like to be… but I think it’s coming. Slowly, but it’s coming, and that’s encouraging.”

Mema says it’s too soon to say whether or not numbers will continue to trend downward, and she has no indication of what October’s fatality numbers have in store. She says continuing to bring awareness and compassion to the crisis will help.

The province has also announced new funding toward drug testing machines and fentanyl testing strips. Mema says these strips came into overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites in the Interior last month. However there's no concrete plan at this point to introduce testing strips into B.C. pharmacies, Mema says, as one Kamloops outreach worker has suggested.

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