Public health emergency reaches anniversary

“We have the means, the motivation and the compassion to turn this situation around…”

On the even of a grim anniversary, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall reached out to make a statement about the growing number of drug related deaths in B.C.

April 14 marks the one-year anniversary of the declaration of a public health emergency in response to the epidemic of opioid-related overdoses in B.C. The following is Dr. Kendall’s statement:

“Tragically, in that 12-month period we have seen an additional 919 deaths,”

“This despite the heroic efforts of volunteers, family members, front-line emergency responders, health-care personnel and law enforcement officials who have responded to and reversed thousands overdoses and saved hundreds of lives. This despite emergency orders that authorized overdose prevention sites, and despite unprecedented collaboration at the municipal, provincial and federal levels. This despite awareness campaigns that stress the risk and emphasize that substance-use disorder is a health condition like many other health conditions and that those suffering from it are brothers, sisters, parents and children from all walks of life.

“While the continued toll is discouraging, we must also acknowledge that because of these actions, hundreds of people are alive and hundreds more are now in treatment and recovery who would not be were it not for these interventions.

“Many more resources are available for people to turn to when they need help. And for the first time in B.C., work is underway to build the addictions treatment system into a coherent continuum that offers assessment and appropriate interventions and follow-up when people need it.

“As the health system partners with those in public safety, there is broad recognition that we cannot arrest our way out of this situation – but neither is it likely we can treat our way out of it. The introduction of highly potent synthetic opioids has been the game-changer in B.C., and I don’t think we are going to be able to keep these out. Although it has yet to be verified, we believe that the unprecedented surge in deaths in November, December and January is attributable to the more widespread arrival of carfentanil here in our province.

“In the face of this challenge, the many people involved in the response across the system are resolved to continue this fight. And there is more work to do. We must maintain our front-line responses, support our staff and volunteers on the front-lines, establish supervised consumption sites, expand access to opioid-assisted treatment (OAT) such as Suboxone, expand access to injectables like hydromorphone for the small proportion of people for whom other therapies do not work, and increase co-ordination and linkages with the recovery community. We need to improve pain management, develop better prevention programming to reduce the risk of people turning to substance use, help support increased resiliency in families, children and youth, and address the issues we have with homelessness and housing affordability.

“But I believe we also need to engage seriously in mature conversations about different ways to regulate psychoactive substances. Portugal shows how a careful approach can make significant inroads in reducing use and harms – by shifting from criminal sanctions to administrative penalties for drug use, coupled with investments in prevention, treatment, social, educational and housing supports, while maintaining criminal sanctions for importers.

“I think that unfortunately, we still have a long road ahead, but I believe that we have the means, the motivation and the compassion to turn this situation around.”

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