Evan Wood (left) MD, PhD is an addiction medicine physician, a scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, and a Canada Research Chair and professor of medicine at UBC. Leslie McBain (right) is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm. (Submitted)

Evan Wood (left) MD, PhD is an addiction medicine physician, a scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, and a Canada Research Chair and professor of medicine at UBC. Leslie McBain (right) is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm. (Submitted)

OPINION: Charting a new course out of the overdose crisis in B.C.

Regardless of where you look, the number of deaths from overdoses are staggering

It has been more than three years since B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the growing number of drug overdose deaths in the province.

Recently, the tremendous efforts of the affected community, health care providers, and first responders have contributed to a decline in overdose deaths. While this is encouraging, the number of people still accidentally overdosing – and dying – as a result of the toxic drug supply far exceeds other areas of Canada. In fact, deaths due to overdose in B.C. dwarf all other causes of premature mortality such as motor vehicle accidents and suicide.

Last month in Coquitlam, the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and Shoppers Drug Mart hosted a town hall where we stood up alongside experts and members of the community to discuss these very issues. The event was created with the goal of sparking a conversation in B.C. – and across the country – that can help end this public health crisis.

While much of the emphasis on opioid overdoses has focused on hard-hit areas like Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the BC Coroner’s Service data demonstrate how other areas of the province have also been seriously affected. In the Fraser Valley, for instance, overdose deaths outnumber those in any other region in the province in 2019. Regardless of where you look, the numbers are staggering.

One of the drivers of overdoses is the prevalence of fentanyl and fentanyl-adulterants in the illegal drug supply, with fentanyl being detected in more than 80 per cent of overdose deaths in the province. To date, efforts have focused on responding to and reducing fatal overdoses among those using fentanyl, with some success. We’re better at responding to overdoses when they happen, as recent data from the BC Centre for Disease Control shows.

However, without an equal focus upstream on the fundamental reasons people are overdosing in the first place, we’ll continue to spin our wheels. In addition to providing naloxone and other harm reduction interventions for when overdoses occur, we need to focus on strategies to help individuals get off of fentanyl-laced drugs while also improving the safety of the drug supply that is fueling overdose deaths.

People living with addiction and families who care for them know this better than anyone. They’ve experienced first-hand how ill-equipped the health care system has historically been in delivering evidence-based addiction treatment and care. Establishing a functioning addiction treatment system in B.C. will require a lot more work.

Experts have identified longstanding reasons for the province’s lack of accessible and effective addiction treatment services. For instance, physicians and other health care practitioners receive next to zero training in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of addiction in medical school and residency training programs. Addressing this skill gap is an obvious area for intervention that will lead to better outcomes for people with an addiction.

The urgent need to treat substance use as a health issue, to establish a functioning addiction treatment system, and to address the toxicity of the drug supply by expanding access to pharmaceutical alternatives are themes that emerge again and again in communities across the province.

In Coquitlam, we had the opportunity to hear from members of the community whose lives have been upended by opioids – a reality we’ve both experienced first-hand. The consensus was clear. To see meaningful change, we need to devote more attention to the causes of overdose, not just the effects.

Evan Wood MD, PhD is an addiction medicine physician, a scientist with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, and a Canada Research Chair and professor of medicine at UBC. Leslie McBain is the co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Chilliwack volunteer drivers are needed to help get cancer patients back and forth to Abbotsford (shown here), Surrey and Vancouver cancer clinics. (Abbotsford News file photo)
Volunteer drivers needed to expand cancer driver program to Chilliwack

Drivers will need to commit to one full day of driving, or two half days each week

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country's crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
CRIME STOPPERS: ‘Most wanted’ for the week of May 9

Crime Stoppers’ weekly list based on information provided by police investigators

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

An injection kit is seen inside a Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Hope’s high rate of drug overdose noted in BC Coroners Service report

Up-to-date numbers not available yet for 2021, but Fraser Health deaths on the rise

Screenshot from security footage a young, thin cougar prowling on Oliver Crescent in Sardis on May 7, 2021. (Dustin Meyer photo)
VIDEO: Cougar sighting in residential Chilliwack neighbourhood prompts warning

Springtime cougar sightings likely due to cats following deer down to valley floor, says CO

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

Pieces of nephrite jade are shown at a mine site in northwestern B.C. in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Tahltan Central Government MANDATORY CREDIT
Indigenous nation opposes jade mining in northwestern B.C.

B.C.’s Mines Act requires operators to prepare a plan to protect cultural heritage resources

Police tape is shown in Toronto Tuesday, May 2, 2017. Statistics Canada says the country’s crime rate ticked up again in 2018, for a fourth year in a row, though it was still lower than it was a decade ago. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
IHIT investigating after man killed in Burnaby shooting

Police looking for more information on fatal shooting

After Bobby Henderson apologized online for his comments to a Toronto reporter, the Langley Rivermen announced that he was no longer team coach and general manager and in fact, had ‘parted ways’ with the franchise in March. (file/Twitter)
Former Langley Rivermen coach and GM apologizes for comments to Toronto reporter

Bobby Henderson blames stress due to the pandemic for his ‘disparaging’ remarks

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Most Read