Number of illicit drug overdose deaths hit record numbers in B.C.

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VICTORIA - The number of overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in British Columbia leapt to 755 by the end of November, a more than 70-per-cent jump over the number of fatalities recorded during the same time period last year.

The B.C. Coroners Service says the powerful opioid fentanyl remains present in a high number of the fatalities and was detected in 374 of the cases, or about 60 per cent of the deaths.

In November, 128 people died from illicit drug use, an average of more than four a day. The highest number of deaths previously recorded for a single month was 82 in January.

In the Interior Health Authority there were 126 illicit drug overdose deaths from January to November this year, compared to 63 in 2015. Just looking at November, there have been 19 fatal overdoses in the Interior Health region.

In Kelowna, 40 people have died during the same time period, compared to 19 in 2016. The numbers are just as disturbing in Kamloops where 32 people have died from an illicit drug overdose in 2016 compared to seven the year previous.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the latest numbers have left officials asking why there has been a spike in the number of deaths.

"Why, with all the new harm-reduction measures in place, are we still losing so many members of our communities to illicit drugs, and why was the loss so much higher in November?" she asked at a news conference.

"Clearly illicit drugs are becoming increasingly unpredictable and increasingly perilous. It may be that there has been more toxic fentanyl than usual circulating, or we may be facing the terrifying possibility of carfentanil being introduced broadly into the illicit drug stream, or the arrival of another particularly lethal analogue of fentanyl."

Lapointe said the service will work with the provincial toxicology centre to try to determine what caused the increase in deaths.

Since declaring a public health emergency earlier this year, the province has taken a number of steps to try and fight the overdose crisis.

The province's latest move was to announce plans for overdose-prevention sites, including locations in Kamloops and Kelowna where people can inject illicit drugs while monitored by trained professionals equipped with naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses.

The crisis took another troubling turn on Friday when an urgent warning was sent out to illicit drug users after 11 people died in the province the day before, six of them in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

Get caught up on fentanyl issue here.

Find past stories on the overdose crisis here.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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