Preliminary count confirms more than 1,400 people in B.C. died after taking drugs in 2017

The city of Vancouver lost 358 people to illicit drugs last year, according to the B.C. Coroners Service latest report on overdose deaths

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      When B.C. journalists learned that 519 people died of an illicit-drug overdose in 2015, they started using words like “shocking” and “crisis” to report the news.

      That’s because 519 deaths was a sharp increase from the 369 deaths that occurred in B.C. just one year earlier, in 2014.

      I don’t know what words we use to describe the number of deaths that today the coroners service announced it counted in 2017.

      Last year, 1,422 people died after taking drugs in B.C.

      That’s a preliminary figure that will likely rise as staff complete ongoing and pending investigations into deaths that occurred in the closing months of last year.

      “There is no question that this is a public-health crisis that is impacting people from all walks of life, and we need to continue to work together to help reduce stigma and increase awareness and support for those at risk,” said B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, quoted in a media release.

      The province’s top doctor, Perry Kendall, is quoted there conceding that actions the government has taken so far have not brought the numbers back under control.

      “We are still in the midst of a persistent and continuing epidemic of unintentional poisoning deaths," he said. "Through heroic and unprecedented actions, responders on the front lines are daily saving hundreds of lives. But hundreds more are still dying, most often alone and with no-one nearby to act when things go wrong. We are going to need to think more broadly, and further out of our comfort zone, to end these tragic losses."

      The 1,422 drug-overdose deaths that the coroners service recorded in 2017 compares to an average of 204 deaths each year from 2001 to 2010.

      The synthetic-opioid fentanyl was associated with 81 percent of deaths in 2017, up from 67 percent the previous year.

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      Despite 2017 marking a record year for overdose deaths, the batch of statistics that the coroner service released today includes a reason for cautious optimism.

      They show that since April 2017, on a monthly basis, the general trend has been one of a decline in deaths.

      There were 151 fatal overdoses that month, then 119 in June, 123 in August, 91 in October, and 99 in December.

      That said, the monthly average for 2017 was 118.5, far above the average for 2016, which was 82.3, and the average for 2015, which was 41.2.

      In the city of Vancouver, there were 358 fatal overdoses last year, up from 234 in 2016, 136 in 2015, and 101 in 2014.

      In April 2016, B.C. declared a public-health emergency in relation to overdose deaths. Since then, the province has opened more than 15 overdose-prevention sites, where people can bring illicit drugs to inject them under staff supervision. It’s also made naloxone, the so-called overdose antidote, available free of charge at locations across B.C. The city of Vancouver is also expanding access to clean opioids like hydromorphone and diacetylmorphine, the medical term for heroin. Despite scaling up over the last year, those programs however remain relatively small.

      The coroners service release notes that last year, nine of 10 fatal overdoses occurred indoors, where people are more likely to use alone.

      “No deaths occurred at any supervised consumption site or at any of the drug overdose prevention sites,” it concludes.