Kelowna drug overdoses occur more frequently in private residences than they do on the streets.
Interior Health staff broke down overdose statistics for the health board on Tuesday that have elevated Kelowna’s overdose death rate, 44.3 deaths per 100,000 people, as the equivalent to downtown Surrey and slightly larger than Vancouver’s downtown eastside.
In actual numbers, that translates to 46 drug overdose deaths in Kelowna between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, with 2017 deaths projected to double over last year.
Dr. Trevor Corneil, chief medical health officer for IH, said the highest risk of fatal overdose events is among people using drugs alone in their homes, the highest incident target age range being 30 to 49 and skewed towards males.
And fentanyl, a powerful opioid synthetic analgesic that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent, has been detected in some 90 per cent of fatal overdose cases so far this year.
Corneil said those statistics are derived from three sources: Emergency department surveillance and recording of suspected and confirmed opioid-related overdoses; B.C. Ambulance Service patient care reports; and B.C. Coroner’s Service overdose investigations.
Corneil said those who use drugs alone in Kelowna are at higher risk to overdose than those who use with others present, a characteristic apparent in other Okanagan communities.
While Corneil said IH is slowly evolving from a reactive to proactive approach to reduce drug-related issues that lead to overdose incidents, ongoing social stigmas and program funding issues still need to be overcome to achieve that objective.
He said IH is working to reduce risk and harm of illicit drug use by expanding access to naloxone kits used to reverse the effects of an overdose, implementing overdose prevention services and mobile supervised consumption services, and increasing access to substance abuse treatment for people at the highest risk of an overdose.
More than 2,500 naloxone kits were handed out between January and July across the Central Okanagan, while the Kelowna mobile supervised consumption service that travels between Outreach Urban Health on Leon Avenue and the Rutland Community Dialysis Centre on Park Road, saw a 25 per cent increase with 1,300 visits in July, compared to the previous month program start-up.
Corneil said access to Opioid Agonist Therapy remains the most important component of reducing opioid overdoses by using suboxone or methadone treatments to ease people off their drug addiction.
Across IH, Corneil said the number of patients on suboxone doubled from 2015-16 to 2016-17.
There is currently one OAT clinic supported by IH’s metal health and substance use program in Kelowna. Corneil said more access is needed but the clinic wait list has been reduced from four to six weeks in August 2016 to an average now of 11 days.
Ideally, that wait time for help should be 24 hours, which could be aided by plans to open a second OAT clinic in Kelowna.
But social stigmatization remains a challenge to overcome, said Corneil, noting the public education process about drug addiction and overdose fatalities has been enhanced by the reality of overdose statistical data.
These aren’t issues related to ghetto areas but what he calls a “neighbouring affect,” where there is a wide spectrum of drug users.
“These are people living in your neighbourhoods who may have jobs and lead normal lives, who could be regular or recreational users, who are falling at risk to overdoses,” Corneil said.
“These are people who don’t feel comfortable accessing program connection points within Interior Health.”
He said criminalization of drug possession and treating drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one, and providing the funding to programs to support that change in philosophy, also remain ongoing issues that not everyone feels comfortable with.
‘There are good things other provinces and countries are doing that we in B.C. can learn from. In Portugal, for example, that country made a change to stop arresting people for possession of drugs and engage them more in social work and treatment options.”
While Portugal’s example worked well, Corneil acknowledged that economic realities forced the government there to reduce its commitment to drug abuse treatment.
“The program was successful but it costs a lot of money and they had to pull back on some of the treatment funding. But there is no one solution that fits all for this unfortunately. There is still a long way to go. But we have to understand this is about the poisoning of the illicit drug market and coming to grips with how we address this from health, social and community perspectives.”